By Jordan Conley
It was a typical school day for a sixth grader. I was rubbing my eyes to wake up, rummaging through my backpack to find my homework from the night before, when I noticed something peculiar. There was a dark imprint of a cross shape on my friend’s forehead. “Um, I think you have something on your forehead”, I said.
At first I thought I had saved her some embarrassment. Maybe she had been finishing homework and inadvertently wiped residue from her pencil on her forehead. “No”, she replied, “it’s supposed to be there, it’s a cross for Ash Wednesday.”
As a young Baptist Sunday School gold star attendance winner, I was perplexed. I had gone to church my entire life, heard and memorized countless verses of scripture, and by sixth grade, had even preached several times, but I had never encountered this “Ash Wednesday.” How could I have missed it? What was it about? Most of all, why did it require getting your forehead dirty?
As my friend explained not only the significance of the marking but of the day, I couldn’t understand why our church didn’t celebrate or recognize this day. Later on, when I inquired about my new discovery, it was quickly explained away. I remember more than one person telling me that it was something mostly observed by Catholics. That was certainly enough of an explanation for me. I wasn’t Catholic.
There was a small parish in the next town over, but it only had a handful of parishioners. And besides, Catholics were a sort of strange bunch as far as I could tell. I didn’t know much about the Catholic Church, but I did know that they drank alcohol, prayed to saints, and were very concerned about the Virgin Mary, none of which I understood or cared to understand.
For many years, that explanation was sufficient for me. I was Baptist, we didn’t really “do” Ash Wednesday, end of story. This belief wasn’t even challenged until after college, when I joined a different kind of Baptist congregation. It was then that I attended my first Ash Wednesday service and walked away touched by its significance.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season for the Christian church, a day observed by Christians around the world for centuries. The distinctive activity of an Ash Wednesday service is the “imposition of ashes” on the believers gathered, reminding us of our own sin and our mortality. We are reminded that it is from dust that we are made and that we will one day be returned to dust. Democrat or Republican, Protestant or Catholic, the ashes and the reflection they bring remind us that we all share in the human condition.
The problem is, we don’t like to be reminded that we will one day be returned to dust. Nobody likes to think about the day when our bodies will give way to time and be returned to God. As someone who works in the funeral industry, I can tell you that some people spend their lifetimes trying to think of everything other than death. Nobody wants to talk about death.
Here’s the fact; we aren’t going to live forever. But, that’s okay. We can admit our own mortality. We can discuss the limits of this life, because with life in Christ, we have the kind of life that won’t simply end when our bodies finally give out. Ash Wednesday isn’t about depression, doom, and despair. It’s about staring our mortality square in the eyes and having peace. It’s about remembering what we have in common with all of humanity, because when we understand that we aren’t as different from our fellow human as we may seem, we become more compassionate, more caring, more Godly people.
So, on Ash Wednesday, you’ll find me in a dimly lit chapel. I’ll stand in line with others in my family of faith, waiting for those black ashes to be placed upon on my forehead. As they are smeared, the minister will say, “Jordan, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
Ash Wednesday is about setting aside time to consider our mortality. It causes us to remember that we will indeed return to dust. But, we won’t face death alone. The Eternal God who has carried us throughout our journey will surely not abandon us in the end. As Allison Kraus gently reminds us, “I know who holds tomorrow, and I know who holds my hand.”
So, may we set aside our pride, our anger, our bitterness, and may we offer honesty, compassion, hope, and love. May we become the people of the lion lying down with the lamb, the meek inheriting the earth, the old becoming new.
Who knew ashes could be so useful?
Jordan is a Funeral Director and a student at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. Originally from the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, Jordan lives in Louisville with his husband, Patrick.