“These ashes were once trees and shrubs,
And places where life was once lived to its fullest.
Once they were full of life.
Now they are black and grey.
But, mixed with the waters of our baptism,
make good fertilizer:
it will help the seeds of the gospel take deeper root in us
and bring forth the fruits,
the harvest of justice, peace and generosity.
These ashes are worth wearing………”
These ashes are worth wearing. We said these words together last night as we began our walk together as a community into the season of Lent. Once again we chose to engage in an ancient ritual of symbol and sentiment, mystery and earthiness. This beginning of the forty day walk toward Easter is not without its challenges and complexities. And yet it endures.
Last night I observed once again something I have noticed over the last several years. For some reason unknown to me, this service attracts many young people under the age of thirty. They come in the door of the sanctuary with a certain purpose and approach those of us who place ashes on their foreheads with their eyes wide open, looking deep. What draws them to this service? I can understand so many of the other worship experiences, but why this one? Here we will talk about mortality and being made up of ashes and even stardust…..all which will eventually return itself to the eternal. It is a mysterious and reflective time, not one filled with all the bells and whistles we trot out for high holy days, those we save for attracting new blood to the aging church.
The service is simple and straight forward and uncluttered. At some point of all the spoken words, we stop the talking and lay aside the modes of communication that drive our days. There comes a time when words are not enough and it takes the touch of skin on skin and the stare of eye to eye. It is the reminder, both to the person who is having ashes placed on their forehead and also the one doing the placing, that this life we live, these days we walk, are fragile, illusive, holy beyond any words. Last night, with each cross I made on the forehead of another, the ashes pressed further and further into my own fingerprint, a visible pressing of earth’s existence into the unique swirls of my skin.
This intimacy, this connection is what truly draws people, I believe. Where else in the course of any day does anyone say ‘ your living matters’? Where else in the patterns of our working and playing, our striving and our failing, are we given the message that these earth bodies we walk around in are a part of all the soil and sun, all the Ancient Breath, that ever was or ever will be? Once a year at least, it is good to be reminded.
For some reason last night after the service, I wanted an orange very badly. I have no idea why the taste and feel of an orange became such an intense desire but I stopped by the grocery store to satisfy this deep want. Walking out of the store, my precious oranges only a few minutes from my lips, I passed another ‘ash-wearer’ coming into the store. Our eyes met and we knew something about one another that we would not have known on another day. Though I did not say it aloud, I did in my head: “These ashes are worth wearing.”
This morning the orange has become a part of me just as I will someday become a part of the orange. It is all a part of the Mystery that we don’t allow ourselves to think of on a daily basis. But once a year, those of us in the Christian household stop what we are doing for just long enough to walk into a place where are reminded of the shared body of our existence. Someone takes the dry, lifeless dirt and makes a cross on our forehead….east, west, north, south…..and looking us in the eye we come to our senses. Once again we wear our vulnerability for all to see.