My preparation for Ash Wednesday most years begins with clearing my calendar for that day. I look at the list of people I accompany as a hospice chaplain and begin making phone calls. “Would you like me to come by with ashes on Ash Wednesday?” I ask. The answer is never no. “Oh, that would be wonderful,” they say, and in no time, my schedule is full.
There’s something mysterious and mystical about the ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday. That dark smudge on our foreheads connects us to something deep within us and beyond us. We are reminded that we are dust, but not just any dust. The dust of our humanness is blessed by the holiness of our Maker. The ashes we receive are like a divine magnet drawing us toward the earth from which we’re made and the eternal for which we long.
The earthiness of ashes speaks to those who are dying, of their lives and what they’ve made of them. Ashes symbolize parts of their lives they’ve had to let go due to illness and paths left untraveled. They symbolize regrets, repentance, and the need for reconciliation. Ashes remind them of their mortality and connect their dying with the death of Jesus. They are a sign of their belief in the Paschal Mystery, weaving together their living, their dying, and their hope of rising to new life.
And what about us who are not on deathbeds? What might make the ashes we receive more meaningful this Lent?
Maybe we’ll take an interior look at where God may be nudging us toward growth or change. Are there patterns of behavior that may be ready for the ash heap? Has dust settled on our souls, because we’ve been lax in tending to our spiritual practices? Do we carry within us ashes of loss or regret? Are there areas where repentance or conversion is needed? Is something preventing us from blossoming into the fullness of who God calls us to be?
Maybe we’ll extend our Lenten gaze outward as well. Can our ashes connect us more deeply with the crucifixion of Christ in our world today? Could we hold in prayer the human deaths brought about by illness, injury, and injustice this past year? Can we include in our lament places reduced to ash by natural disasters and a planet in peril? Can we consider how our action or inaction contributes to societal suffering and connects us with it?
As Ash Wednesday draws to a close, I look at the thumb I’ve used to distribute ashes and notice the ashes have found their way into the grooves in my skin. I smile, knowing it’s a mark of the work that has given meaning to this day. The ashes of this day want to linger a little longer and go a little deeper into the crevices of my soul. They are the holy dust that fertilizes the humus of my being for Lenten growth in God.