For the first Ash Wednesday since Ardelle and I entered the Episcopal Church 24 years ago, I won’t receive the imposition of ashes on my forehead by another Christian today, hearing the loving and unadorned reminder that I am dust, and to dust I shall return. This is a great loss for me. I know it is for many of you too. Who knew that after a year of pandemic adjustments and accommodations in our worship life, a snowstorm is what would take away our ashes.
Ash Wednesday without ashes sounds like a logical, if not liturgical, impossibility. But it’s not. Believe it or not, the imposition of ashes did not appear in a Book of Common Prayer until 1979. This doesn’t mean that no Episcopalians or Anglicans knew of the practice before our present prayer book, and certainly not that no Christians did. But it would have been very much the exception in the Anglican tradition for centuries. (If you’re curious about what a couple of the Episcopal Church’s foremost liturgical scholars have written about pandemic Ash Wednesday practice, click HERE or HERE.)
That we have only relatively recently returned to a form of this ancient Christian practice doesn’t make it less precious to me. Nor should it. The Church has gotten plenty of things plenty wrong at different points over the centuries. Older is not always more right. But to hear that, for us, the imposition was something added to the bones of a liturgy that did not require it, rather than what the liturgy was shaped carefully around, does expand my vision of how the wisdom of the day has come to many Christians over time. And it has returned me to the words of the liturgy, particularly to the psalms we’ll say or sing.
“As far as the east is from the west,” says the psalmist, “so far has he removed our sins from us… he himself knows whereof we are made; he remembers that we are but dust. Our days are like the grass; we flourish like a flower of the field; When the wind goes over it, it is gone, and its place shall know it no more. But the merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever on those who fear him, and his righteousness on children’s children…”
Your mortality and mine are not actually to be the ultimate focus of Ash Wednesday. Divine mercy is. You and I are made of dust. We will fade and be blown away by the wind like flowers and grass. But the mercy of God will not. It endures. Forever. And you and I, limited mortal creatures that we are, can experience that merciful goodness as it passes on far beyond our lives, into the lives of the children of children.
Other Christians and congregations have made other choices about this day. It is possible to make ashes in your home with a few burnt, crumbled match sticks or gather some from your fireplace, which might be something you choose to do, and might even be something you need. But I’ll be experiencing the liturgy and the day without them this year because I can’t give and receive them physically with you within the liturgy through which we enter the holy season of Lent together. And also because, at least this once, after a year filled up with reminders of mortality and the imposition of all sorts of limits on our lives, it is the absence of ashes today that has turned the attention of this mortal body briefly away from itself, toward a merciful goodness that’s always been. The mercy that made us. That endures. And ever will.