Updated: Jul 31, 2021
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
Ash Wednesday is pretty high on the list of Holy Days that I get excited about. Between the readings that seem to surprise me year after year and the stark reminder that we are dust, I find great solace in the yearly reminder of my mortality and the call to be humble in the sight of God. Because of this appreciation for Ash Wednesday, I also carry many memories of this day from years before.
I remember Ash Wednesday in 2018: I was visiting someone in Milwaukee, one week after twenty inches of snow blanketed southeastern Wisconsin. That morning, we woke up to another four inches. We slipped into our snow boots and walked six blocks to the nearest Episcopal Church and received our ashes along with seven other parka-clad snowshoers. The large, beautiful church was empty; the congregation was somber; the weather was biting and cold.
I remember Ash Wednesday in 2016: I was studying at Goucher College in Baltimore. I read and served at the evening chapel service. Someone who I sang with in the college choir sat in the front row. As we read the psalm together, she was visibly upset. She ended up in my line for ashes. I spoke the words, “Remember you are dust,” and as my thumb left an ashen cross on her forehead, I demolished a dam of tears, grief, and sorrow. After the service, we sat in the dark chapel and talked for over an hour.
I remember Ash Wednesday in 2014: Early in the morning, I stood outside the sacristy with an old coffee can and last year’s palm fronds. The hiss of the butane torch is in my ears today—swirling around the rim of the can, again and again, waiting for the dry palms to incinerate and burn. When the service began, the ashes still felt warm and gritty in their bowl.
The world around us is full of reminders of God: the stars fixed in their orbit, the snow that rests as manna in the grass, the palm trees outside my window that dance in the wind. Even the smallest caterpillar helps us recall God’s care of creation, of us. And yet… Sometimes, these reminders aren’t enough. We turn our focus away from God. We overlook that we are made by God—that we are made in the image of God. We might retreat into our burrows, grappled by fear, doubt, and worry.
With this in mind, Ash Wednesday is about remembering. It is not only about our remembrance of things gone before, but also of God remembering us: as the psalmist writes, “For he himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust” (Ps. 103:14). It was God’s hands who scooped up the clay and formed Adamah—Adam—the creature of the earth. It was God’s breath that entered Adam’s nostrils and lungs and brought forth life. God remembers—for God has created us, shaped us, and given us life. Because we are God’s own creation, we trust that God will protect us. We look forward to God’s embrace at the end of our mortal life.
In preparation for the Lenten season ahead, we look to God and ask, “Create in me a new heart. Renew a right spirit within me.” Lent is the season where many Christians feel called to give things up, or take something on. It is an opportunity to make things right with our neighbors. It is a call for us to spend the next forty days in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. But more than these, Lent is a time to wrestle with our own demons in the wilderness, as Jesus did. This inner wrestling of Lent is an invitation to renewal: an early start to spring cleaning… a chance to turn away from hypocrisy… a time to exorcise those evil thoughts and habits that pull us away from God. This is why Ash Wednesday is important to me and why I cherish it every year. It is a reminder of our mortality, a chance to reset, a time to humble ourselves before God and our neighbor.
Jesus’ lesson in the Gospel reading for today amplifies that Lenten call to humility. He preaches to the crowd a sermon on how to give alms, how to pray, and how to fast. For Jesus and his audience, these aren’t hypothetical or conditional suggestions. He doesn’t say, “If you give alms,” he says, “when you give alms.” These are instructions. They are reminders to work on our relationships.
This relational work is done in an exercise of remembrance. God always remembers us, but our prayer helps us remember God and improve our relationship with our Creator. Almsgiving enables us to see God in the face of another and to repair our relationships with those around us. Fasting helps us remember that we are part of God’s creation, and that we are made in the image of God, to repair our relationship with ourselves.
As the prayer of Confession from Enriching Our Worship reads, “We repent of the evil that enslaves us; the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.” I think this is a truly Lenten endeavor; it is to remember how our actions have affected others, to repent for the hurt that we have caused, and to repair our relationships with those whom we have hurt, either directly or indirectly.
Jesus asks that crowd—and us—to stay focused on God and God’s will for creation; to remember who’s in charge; to burn to ash all of the things that compel our anxiety; and to seek out that renewal and restore compassion, justice, and goodness with others and to the world around us.
There are forty days ahead of us to do this work before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Forty days to process our grief and bear a new awareness—one focused on God and God’s love. Forty days to let our bad habits die and be reborn as a passionate fire to stamp out the cold. Forty days to wrestle with the demons in the darkness as we wait for the light of Easter. Forty days to find God and God’s will at work in the gritty places of our lives.
So, this Lent, I ask you to remember. Remember others. Remember God. Remember that you are dust—that you are stardust, that billion-year-old carbon—and at the end of your time, to dust you shall return.