The first time I remember attending an Ash Wednesday service, I was in college. A friend invited me. I was intrigued by the unfamiliar concept, so joined her.
I watched as people moved from their seats and filed toward the altar, still unsure what this was all about. They went forward, knelt, were anointed with ashes, and returned.
It was almost my turn.
By this point I was pretty sure I was too good for this kind of ritualistic nonsense. I had not grown up with such a tradition and its unfamiliarity left me uncomfortable at best.
It was too late to leave. I joined the the solemn line, surprised by the heaviness seeming to weigh on those surrounding me. My turn. I knelt in front of the priest and looked up, lost. Instead of the cold, ceremony I expected to engage, I was met with eyes full of kindness and love. The world seemed to stop as he looked into my eyes, dipping his thumb into the ashes, and he tenderly spoke: "From dust you were created...." His ash covered thumb pressed onto my forehead as he marked a line. "...and to dust you will return." He crossed the line, anointing my forehead with the symbol of a cross. A reminder of my own mortality, a call to repentance, and need for salvation.
I stood, feeling like I had just received an invitation to die; and I had. This seemed wrong. My immortal soul rebelled at the insinuation that I focus on death. I fought to remain indignant but the weight of the ashes falling from my forehead, into my eyes and down my cheeks overwhelmed me.
For me, at least, the peak of the service comes when the priest invites the congregation forward to the altar rail to receive ashes on our foreheads. Those of us who have done it before know that we are being invited to our own funerals. Kneeling shoulder to shoulder at the rail, we wait our turn, hearing the priest say to others what will soon be said to us. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," the priest says to me, making the sign of the cross on my forehead.
Because she has just dipped her thumb in the cup of ashes, I get the full dose. Extra ashes fall on the bridge of my nose. I worry for a moment about how silly I will look when I stand up and turn around. Then I get the sudden urge to ask for more, to ask for a whole bowl of ashes on my head. But it is not yet my turn for a whole bowl. For now, all I get is a taste of death, while there is till time to say please and thank you to the Giver of all life."
- Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, pg. 77 (Kindle edition)
For me, this season is about recognizing my own mortality and desperate need for a Savior. It's a time of repentance, wilderness, fasting, seeking and finding Hope in the death, burial, and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for all.
Below is one of my favorite songs. The LORD has sustained me many times through this specific recording (not video, just audio) through the years and it's perfect for this season, so I wanted to share.
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God!
He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. - 1 Cor. 15:55-57