On Wednesday I joined with countless other people who make their faith home in the Christian household in receiving ashes on my forehead for Ash Wednesday. With this we the began the season of Lent. It is not a practice I was raised with in my Protestant, Baptist-influenced United Methodist Church in Ohio. I probably had not seen evidence of the black smudges until I went to college. It was there that I observed certain members of my community, in classes and in the dorm, walking around for a full day with what seemed a dirty face. Curious, I learned what it was and maybe even why it was. But it still had little meaning to me. It did not seem to include me in its visual sign of being a part of the faithful.

Over the years, many outside the Roman Catholic tradition have embraced this practice and now in most protestant churches the beginning of the forty days of Lent begin with some kind of service of ashes. It has become one of my favorite services of the church year. It is tactile. It is earthy. It is rife with truth and deep in emotion. It gets to the grit of what it means to be a spiritual being having a bodily experience.

“From the earth you have come…and to the earth you will return. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The only other time we hear these words, the only other time I say them is at the graveside of a dear one who has made the fullness of their journey. Birth. Life. Death. Rebirth. Looking into the eyes of someone fully alive, standing right in front of you, breathing, and saying these words is powerful beyond measure. Fingers laced with the black of ashes created by the palms of last year’s palm fronds, I touch the sometimes furrowed, often shiny, soft, weathered, sensitive skin of another. The mark from my finger stays on the face of one who is also God’s Face in the world. It stays with me for the days that follow.

Before receiving the ashes, we all are reminded through scripture, song, prayer and confessing words, that over the last year, since last Lent, we have fallen short of God’s original blessing in us, the blessing God speaks over Jesus at his baptism and at the birth of each of us: “You are my beloved…I take great pleasure in you.” Since last year we, each of us, has known brokenness, been hurtful, excluded, shamed, oppressed, maimed the spirit of another blessed creature of the One who breathed us all into being. Ash Wednesday gives us the time to fess up, make amends, and remember that our lives are finite. In that, we pray, we hope, we intend to live more fully, more gently, more kindly, more lovingly, after the example of our brother Jesus.

Doing the work that I do, privileged and blessed work, I am aware of that finite nature. The cycle of birth, life, and death does not always come at an age that is full in years. We know this. We try to forget. We want to believe that we have all the time in the world. And then we think of all those we know who did not, who do not. The practice of receiving ashes can be a reminder, if we let it, that we are all on an uncertain journey of time but one that can return us again and again to the Holy, the One who meets us face to face, touches us gently and asks that we live fully now. Now.

Jan L. Richardson, artist and poet ends a poem blessing for Ash Wednesday in this way:

……..This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of
this sacred earth.

So let us be marked
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
is made,
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
we bear.

And to this I simply say, amen.