Marking Ash Wednesday is actually among the stranger things that we Christians do.
We’ve been doing it for a long time now—this practice of putting ashes on our foreheads and coming together to remember our mortality.
But it is strange.
Unlike other holidays…unlike, like, say, Christmas or Easter, Ash Wednesday is hard to sentimentalize.
There are no greeting cards or cheery cartoon specials for Ash Wednesday, heralding its arrival or explaining its meaning.
This is one holiday that the Grinch doesn’t try to steal.
The day before–Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras—well, that we understand.
Revelry comes to us easily enough. Mardi Gras is a party you don’t want to miss.
And if Alvin and the Chipmunks visited Mardi Gras, nobody would bat an eye.
Not so, Ash Wednesday.
It’s not a holiday that everybody knows, whether they’re Christian or not. Even for many of the faithful, it’s not one of the biggies.
Ash Wednesday is squarely about mortality–about the fact that life is short, and often hard, and that in our honest moments, we are able to say so.
Truth be told, it can be hard to know exactly what to do with that. It doesn’t particularly cheer us up to name it.
And so, Ash Wednesday resists being coopted or drained of its awkwardness, and if you ask me, that’s worth a great deal.
“Smile, and the world smiles with you,” goes the old expression. “Cry, and you cry alone.”
We find it so hard to be alone.
Now, the witness of the Church from the very beginning has been that we are not.
We are not alone. That God, in his grace, and in his son, through the Spirit, is with us.
That every hair on our head has been counted, as Jesus promises, and that through it all…whatever we mean by “all”…whatever “all” might entail for us, that God is absolutely, unfailingly, unequivocally and devotedly with us.
That’s how we understand God in the Church. That’s what the Bible says.
But what if that weren’t true? What if we were alone?
That’s the question that Ash Wednesday asks us to consider.
What if the dust were all there was? What if that was all we were, in the end: just dust?
It’s fascinating how so many people seem to want no part of those kinds of questions.
But Ash Wednesday pushes them on us, anyway.
It pushes us to name the difference Jesus makes for us.
It pushes us to say where it is today, lately, that we have seen and known him.
Whether it is in the call of our conscience, the pull of something or someone on our heartstrings, the sense that we sometimes have that we are exactly where we belong in the world—or conversely, that our season in a particular place has ended.
We know his presence in so many different ways.
Now some Christians come from traditions where it is important for people to share their testimony with one another…where there is a tradition of sharing the story of their encounters with the love of God and the person of Jesus—the story of how it is they know he has claimed them as his own.
Actually, that used to be part of the Congregational tradition. Before you were admitted into the membership of a local church, you were asked to stand and offer your testimony.
In practice, though, I’m not sure how often it is that any one would be called to testify, and it seems as if in many places, once probably did the trick.
Ash Wednesday is here to say that once doesn’t do the trick.
It’s here to say that, whether or not we’re called upon to testify, it is important just the same to know where it is that we see Jesus…not once upon a time, but now.
That it’s important for each of us to look for where God’s love is reaching us, and healing us, and challenging us now.
It reminds us that if life is more than ashes in the end, it’s because something is alive that cannot be quenched. Something is moving that cannot be stilled. Someone is loving us into a new being.
If we are not alone, it’s because something—someone—is beside us and within us and around us—at each moment.
Do we still know it? Are we still guided by that?
Lent is a time to ask ourselves where we are with all that, and to ask God for what it means to know.
It is a time to look mortality in the face and see, not dust, but destiny.
Some people are uncomfortable with it.
But for those who are willing to wrestle with the angel, it is part of what makes an active, living faith.
So, yes, it is a strange thing we do tonight. A strange, somber, and symbolic thing.
Let’s not rush the answers.
But those who ask with open hearts, the answer of Easter is not far off.
For those who ask with open hearts, hope sings quietly to us a psalm of life.