Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I Remember the Ashes

Remember that you are dust and
to dust you shall return.
by Ben Howard

I remember the first time I celebrated Ash Wednesday. It was during my senior year of college and I remember getting up early, which if you know me is a miracle in itself, to go to the first service of the day at St. Paul's Cathedral in Oklahoma City.

I don't remember much about the service, but I remember the ashes.

When I got back to campus, I headed off to my Spanish class and I could feel the ashes on my forehead. I attended a small, conservative Christian college based in a denomination that doesn't celebrate the liturgical year, so the vision of a 21-year old college student with a big black smudge on his forehead was decidedly out of place. I don't know how far reality diverges from memory, but I remember eyes staring at me.

I remember the ashes.

When I got to class, I remember one of my fellow students tried to wipe the ashes away from my forehead. He thought I had just done some activity that left black residue on my forehead. I don't know what he imagined I had been doing, but I eventually got him to stop. I told him that the ashes were there for a reason, that they had a purpose.

It was a small classroom, full of curious people and our conversation soon attracted interest. Somebody asked me what the ashes meant. What did the ashes mean?

I’m a rather talkative person, and a bit of a know-it-all at that, but in this particular moment I had no interest in talking. I knew what the ashes represented as a symbol, I had heard the words of the priest that morning as he gently placed them on my forehead, but I was only over the course of that day experiencing what the ashes meant, how they affected the way I felt and the way I experienced the world around me.

How could I explain it? How could I explain that the ashes made me feel both shame and repentance at the same time? How could I explain the weight of being reminded of both your creation and your mortality in the same breath? In the same symbol?

I don’t remember giving an explanation that morning. I’m still not sure I can give a proper explanation now. That’s one of the things I love about Ash Wednesday, one of the things I love about Lent, and Easter, and Advent and all the seasons of the church year. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but I experience them in such layered and various ways from year to year.

I can’t convey the experience, but I know it is powerful. I know it forces me to reflect and meditate in the tension between the poles of existence, in the poles between life and death, birth and resurrection.

I can’t tell you what it means, but I still remember the ashes.


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