I wrote this a few years ago and thought about it again with the beginning of Lent.
As silent figures amble from the sanctuary Wednesday night, we begin observing the Lenten season. During the imposition of ashes, I always get reflective.
There is something about each face that presents itself before me to receive the smudgy cross, to hear the lovely morbid words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and the bare call to conversion, “Repent and believe the gospel.” This is intimacy, with all its playful shyness and awkward terror –flesh pressed against flesh, the truth about our common humanity briefly acknowledged. As I meet eyes with person after person, I smile. It seems the least I can do before administering these naked and forceful words.
As I place the ashes on forehead after forehead, I ponder each one. Teenagers come, death and mortality juxtaposed defiantly against their clumsy adolescent vibrancy. Older folks come, sage eyes speaking the deep truth of the liturgy back to me even though my lips are the only ones moving. Mothers and fathers come, mindful, prayerful, spiritual, yes, but wanting their visions of graduations and weddings and careers and grandchildren to be truer than the ashy truth of this night.
Pastors know the rules of the trade. No pressing the ashes harder on some persons than on others. Use the same amount of ashes with everyone. Do not be more eager to impose some than others. Having sat in committee meetings, hospital rooms, school plays, and soccer games with these people, we may have a list of specific sins of which to be repented. But they know ours as well, the narcissisms common to the baptized. This is real worship in the beloved community of death and gospel, ashes and intimacy.
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:10 NIV)