Ash Wednesday is one of the most powerful days of the Christian year. We remember that we are, indeed, mortal beings in a finite world held together simply through the breath, grace and love of our Creator. On Ash Wednesday, everything and everyone is laid bare.
About a decade ago, one of the little babies that I nannied, (the first tiny infant I had held since my own miscarriages) died on Ash Wednesday. I received the news at the end of my preschool teaching that morning, only moments before the noontide service was to begin upstairs in the church sanctuary. My parents were meeting me at the service. My dad look at me when I walked in and he knew what had happened. The sweet infant’s heart surgery that morning had gone terribly wrong.
My dad held me close to his own heart as we remained in the narthex listening to the familiar Ash Wednesday liturgy — words that had swept over me from my own infancy years. We cried together over the poignancy of those words reflecting on our mortality and the suffering in the world. My parents and I walked down the aisle, an aisle we had walked down together in joy only a few years before as I married my high school sweetheart. I walked that aisle knowing that, for me and for all who loved that little baby, nothing would ever be the same.
Walking down that aisle, I faced mortality head on. As I received the sign of ashes on my forehead, the senior minister and I looked at each other through bloodshot, tear-filled eyes. His voice was a trembling whisper. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Even in the midst of my deepest shock, those words struck me to my core.
Now, a decade later, the words strike deeply again, as only a couple of months ago, I held my father’s ashes in my hands before they were laid to rest on a sunny day in the midst of winter.
On Ash Wednesday, we remember our mortality. We remember the suffering in the world. We acknowledge our fears, our shortcomings and our sadness.
In our remembrance and intentions during the Lenten season that begins today, we speak of death without hesitation. We cry out at the pain, suffering and injustice in our world. We walk the road of shadows, pricking our fingers on the thorns and getting down on our hands and knees in the mud and muck of life. We remember who we are. And in so doing, we open ourselves up to the possibility of breathing in new life.
The joy and triumph of Easter means nothing without the sting of death. So, my sisters and brothers, may we not be hasty to embrace the light. Walk with me along this road of shadows. Let us stumble together along the pathway of Lent.