Last Wednesday I facilitated much of our church’s observance of Ash Wednesday, leading out in the reading of Scripture, confession, and the application of ashes. I have done this many years before and it has always been a profound time of mediation on the salvation of the Gospel, but this year it was unique. For the first time it was I alone who applied the ashes, meaning that I got to apply them to every person in the congregation (a mere 20 people, perhaps not a great feat by conventional counting standards, but still).
This meant not only applying the ashes and declaring to my loved ones (almost all of whom I’ve known deeply for years), “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” but helping many of them kneel and get back to their feet without falling down. In the time I’ve known so many people in my church I’ve seen people get much further along in years and watched their health change (and watched one sister die). Declaring their mortality to them as I supported their weight, clasping their arm to keep them from falling or slipping — that was a different experience. The proclamation of mortality was so much more deeply real, not because of anything in the liturgy, but because of the truly real, truly tangible presence of Christ to me in these concrete people with whom I am united.
Feeling the trembling hands and supporting the feeble knees of people I have known for years, telling them that they are destined to return to dust, and that our sole hope lies in God’s utterly new act of resurrection from the dead, that was something beautiful and frightening to me. I knew as I applied the ashes and spoke those words that I would walk with these people through their deaths and visit their graves when they quite literally have returned to dust. I knew then, once again, how deeply vulnerable and defenseless we all are before the ravages of this broken world. And I knew then, once again, that in these broken vessels, in the process of returning to dust, was the light of Christ, the bringer of new creation, new life, and unlimited hope, a hope that is not seen.