I have never really figured out Ash Wednesday. As a west coast kid, the only people who did the ash-on-their-foreheads were Catholic, so it wasn't really much of a thing for me. We didn't even have church that day. Now that I'm serving a congregation in the midwest, we participate in an ecumenical evening service with our Methodist neighbors, where we do the traditional ashes-on-the-forehead for everyone at the end of the service. I've come to appreciate consecrating ourselves as fragile and fallible at the beginning of Lent.
But being Facebook friends with clergy all over the country, my Ash Wednesday is filled with people offering "ashes to go", offering ashes on folks' foreheads in a public place, e.g. as they board the train for work. Colleagues I know and love do it every year, but I confess, I really don't like this practice. It smacks of Christian hegemony and privilege in a pluralistic world--an assumption that people would appreciate such a display of one particular religion's penitential practice.
Every Wednesday for most of the year, we host homeless guests in our church building for meals and for shelter overnight. As I was leaving after last night's service, still grumbling to myself about spectacle and practice of the whole Ash Wednesday thing, one of our guests, who was having a cigarette outside, stopped me, and asked if I had ashes. I had some in my office, so I went back, got them, got my thumb dirty again, and said to her, "Remember you are as fragile as ashes, and as precious as stardust*," as I made the sign of the cross on her forehead.
Here I am, a west-cost-raised, rationalistic pastor, who still doesn't totally get Ash Wednesday, let alone why total strangers would appreciate getting ashes from me, and in the last two minutes of my day, a woman who slept on our church floor last night came to me seeking a blessing on her forehead.
For as much as I sometimes feel like I've got something powerful or witty or thoughtful to say about complex and deep issues, there are so many more times like this in my life--times when I'm left speechless at the wonder and beauty of the mystery in front of me; times when Jesus shows up and keeps me humble.
And all I have to say, is "Wow." Thanks be to God.
*The traditional words are, "remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." That's too foreboding for me, so I change it, inspired in part by one of my wonderful mentors, the Rev. Dr. JoAnne Terrell.