Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Weight of Ashes and the Unbearable Lightness of Bread

One of the hardest things I do in my job as pastor is Ash Wednesday worship. It's not that it's a complicated service or that it's physically demanding in any way. It's giving the ashes.

In the Christian tradition, ashes are marked on the forehead at the beginning of Lent as a sign of repentance and of our mortality. As I mark the cross on people's foreheads, I speak the words recorded as spoken by God to Adam: "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." They are a reminder that we are mortal, with limited time on this earth. I am basically saying to people: Your life is precious. It's precious because it's short, so don't waste it. Or, if want to be blunt: Someday, you are going to die.

Now, imagine saying that to dozens of people while looking them in the eye.

To the person battling cancer: "You are dust..."

To the recent divorcee: "You are dust..."

To the new parents: "You are dust..."

To a child (including my own): "You are dust..."

Over the years, I've spoken those words to hundreds of people including infants and elderly, newlyweds and widows, poor and wealthy, and some who have indeed returned to the dust before that coming Easter. As I speak those words repeatedly, extending my black-stained thumb to touch the head of someone who will one day be dust, it's inevitable that at some point I start to choke back tears and feel my heart tighten within me with the weight of the moment. Your life is precious. Your life is precious. Your life is precious.

I can often get to the end of Ash Wednesday worship and be exhausted from those few minutes of ashes, but this year was different. Yesterday the ashes were answered in a way I'd never felt before.

Later in the service, we celebrate the Lord's Supper and once again, people come forward from their seats to receive these mysterious elements, a morsel and a sip that somehow contain an infinite mercy. And once again I find myself looking people in the eye and extending my hand to each of them, but this time I speak different words: "This is the Body of Christ, broken for you." And once again these words carry meaning deeper than the literal one because I am saying: Here is Jesus, the Bread of Life, who has come to feed our spiritual hunger. Here are the words -- "for you" -- that ring with good news.

What struck me for the first time this year was that in those words, I was saying the same thing as with the ashes, but in reverse. In sharing the bread I was saying: Your life is precious. It is precious because God decided it was worth the cross, so your life won't go to waste. As I repeated the words and looked at the ashes on people's heads, I felt my heart grow light and the corners of my mouth curl in joy. Your life is precious. Your life is precious. Your life is precious.

One of the things about religion that continues to drive me to explore it is the sense of paradox and mystery, that two contradictory statements can both be true (e.g. Jesus is fully God and Jesus is fully human) and that some statements can mean more than one thing. In between the ashes and the bread last night, I discovered that they carry the same message, but different meanings, and in that message is contained the heart of both Lent and Easter: Your life is precious. 

“...and life is just a dare we take.” -Jars of Clay, “Out of My Hands”

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your perspective on this subject. I have always been saddened by this exercise. Now I can look at the act in a new way as "Your life is precious."