There are several formulas used for receiving ashes to begin the Lenten season. The most common ritual is to be smeared on the forehead with soot while a ministering agent proclaims: “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Another familiar phrase used is: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” During Covid’s rampage, it was permitted that no words be said and, as occurs in many parts of the world every year, instead of marking the forehead, ashes were sprinkled onto heads. Regardless of the formula, those who receive grimy dust to begin the journey on Ash Wednesday accept the annual Christian challenge to walk with our Christ, reminiscent of how He entered His own forty-day desert experience.
In our individual spiritual deserts, we encounter personal sins and examine mortality as we reflect upon fleeting human existence. From the creation of Adam, ashes have been part of the story of salvation history; and from Moses and David, Job and Jonah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, to you and me, they touch penitential and sacrificial aspects of living. Ashes remind us that, like the first man, we are dust of the earth—and our human body will be reduced to that state once again at our demise. “Human” comes from the Latin “humus,” which means earth. It is the root of humanity and humility, which imply being earthy or grounded. Bearing the mark of earth’s sediment, our goal throughout these forty days is to become more humble, more grounded.
Like Jesus, we must face some dark or dirty demons while in the desert. Traveling with Him to a deep place within the heart, we can contemplate questions significant to our human existence. As Jesus thought about what it means to be the Son of God, here is a sample of questions we might ponder. When I look into the mirror what do I see and what do I want to change? When I look into my soul what do I see and what do I want to change? Reviewing actions that I have taken in my life, which is the one I most want to undo? Which act, choice, or remembrance brings me the most happiness? If I knew this would be the final day of my life, how would I spend it? If I had one last message to leave a handful of people who are most important to me, what is the message? As Jesus prayerfully analyzed what it means to be the Son of God, we are encouraged to think about what it means to be a child of the same God in our time and unique circumstances. As such, we might give attention to other questions, e.g., how I bring a human touch to an increasingly dehumanized world, how I connect to the nursing home in my neighborhood or other nearby agency to help others, how I could assist the person in my life who most needs me right now, how I can reconcile with someone or something that nags at the core of my being…
The level of questioning that the smudged ashes upon our forehead represent will align us with our faith and the manner by which we accompany Christ. That mark and those questions can be a good starting point. Grappling with them will be tough business if we take it seriously. Our spiritual tussle, amidst the annual tussle of winter and spring, cold and warmth, darkness and light, and nature’s journey from death into new life, can be renewing. If the ashes of the first day and the struggles of our lives inaugurate it, it might just be a powerful and beautiful journey ahead.