The act of marking ourselves with ashes likely seems a bit absurd to most bystanders. It may not make sense to many participants. A fairly rational group of people gathers in the middle of a normal workweek for prayer, song, and scripture. In the midst of this, we come forward to have ash smeared upon our foreheads and hear the ominous words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The entire ritual of Ash Wednesday seems a bit strange even within our theological heritage. A people committed to God’s grace rather than works of righteousness gather to commit to Lenten disciplines. A people devoted to cleanliness in the blood of Jesus smear ashes of penitence upon our foreheads. This time is unlike any other in the life of the church.
There’s actually a liturgical logic to Ash Wednesday, one the helps us not only comprehend the church year but also to act out, to rehearse, to remember the work of God in our own lives. The liturgical year flows alongside the life of Christ and the narrative of Scripture. From Jesus’ birth (Advent and Christmas), through his life (Epiphany and Lent), then his death and resurrection (Triduum and Easter), then to the life of the church in the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), the church year guides us along scripture to help us remember God’s written word as a testimony to Jesus Christ, the Living Word.
Ash Wednesday, the doorway into Lent, reminds us of our need of re-creation. As people called to live lives of justice and mercy, we must first recognize our own propensity to injustice, our habitual rush to judgment. We gather in full knowledge of Christ’s death and resurrection, and yet live out the reality that we must again ask for the forgiveness. In this way, Ash Wednesday is an extended kyrie, a plea for mercy we know we've received. We commit to disciplines to live out the change we've received in the Gospel. We take ash upon our foreheads to remember not only that we came from dust and shall return to dust, but also that God once breathed life into the dust of Eden, and does so again in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We participate in these rituals to help us tangibly recall the life of Christ, to remember the work of God not just in our minds, but with our bodies. Take those ashes upon yourself, remembering that we’re the dust God chose, the dust that reflects the image of God.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.