Not Just a Smudge on the Forehead – a reflection on Ash Wednesday
Our first instinct is to take the imposition of ashes, and the words, ‘Remember You are Dust,’ as an act of penance. However, I would suggest that rather than an acknowledgement of our guilt and sinfulness it is a call to an elemental understanding of what it is to be human in all its fragility, vulnerability and dependency. It points to our origin, that humanity was formed from ‘the dust of the ground,’ and that God breathed life into us so that we could become a living being. The fact that we are created from dust from the ground and return to dust reminds us of our essential creatureliness, that we are bound by the same limitations and are not immortal. This shared creatureliness connects us to other animals and nature: we are bound to the role of steward, friend, and companion to all other species, creatures who share our fragility. To forget our creatureliness leads us to forget our true and rightful place in the world. Instead of caring for nature, we assume a position of power and with it the license to use, exploit, and oppress. So tonight’s service has environmental implications in how we live our lives.
Secondly, tonight reminds us of our utter dependency on God, that our vitality is dependent on God’s gift of breath, and the continuous giving of breath. It points to the precarious nature of our lives but also to the generosity and loyalty of God who is endlessly forming, breathing on, naming, summoning, guarding and feeding us. Psalm 104 describes this love in two ways: Firstly, as chesed – God’s love is steadfast and from everlasting to everlasting – in other words it will always be there; secondly God’s love is ‘racham’ – a compassion for us like a father or mother has for their children – in other words a tender, deep, agonizing love. It is a reminder not to take the preciousness of our existence and life for granted.
So tonight’s ritual is not just ‘a smudge on the forehead’ but a moment of liturgical confrontation, a moment of magisterial redefinition that has the potential to redefine how we live by reaffirming our creatureliness, a creature wrought in and through God’s fidelity and love for us. It is a visible sign of freedom and dignity, of fragility and a coming home. It has the potential to give us energy and courage, strength in weakness, exaltation in lowliness. There is a sense that we are destined for a life other than our own, which in the end is true life. These are the ashes, not only relinquishment, of dying to an old sense of self but the ashes of receptivity, of an understanding that we are surrounded and saturated by blessing, and can now live a life of hosting blessing, which in turn will enable us to be a blessing to others.