We dispensed strange Valentines at church this year, announcing to people "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The calendar conspired to put Ash Wednesday on Feb. 14, meaning we observed a different kind of love — besooted rather than besotted.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, the 40-day season of preparation when people fast or observe new spiritual practices in advance of Easter. The season prescribes strong doses of confession and repentance, with side effects of music in a minor key.
The official beginning of the season comes in the Ash Wednesday service. Congregants line up for the Lord’s Supper and come to the front of the church, receiving the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads. By the end of the exercise my thumb is charred enough that I think twice about shaking someone’s hand after worship.
I do relish the opportunity to “impose” ashes because it suggests God’s closeness to us. Jesus came and called us to a new way of life in the reality of our mundane human existence. And just as surely as the physical sign of the ashes marks our head, so too did Jesus mark the world with God’s thumbprint through his acts of healing and compassion. Jesus’ ministry had to do with the stuff of Earth — physical spaces of love and death, joy and suffering, sickness and health — all in particular human lives, all redeemed under the sign of the cross.
This is what people bring to the front of the church as they receive that sign. They bring the stuff of their lives. They bring experiences of sickness and hope for healing. They bring age. They bring youth.
Here are ashes for a friend, a neighbor.
Here are ashes for a family who hold hands.
Here are ashes for someone who lost a husband.
Here are ashes for someone facing cancer.
Here are ashes for the young couple with their child.
Here are ashes for the older couple worried about theirs.
Here are ashes for my wife.
Here are ashes for my child.
My hand starts to shake. What was once the rote repetition of words and a flourish of my hand becomes a confrontation with death through the most joyful reminder of life in the face of my beloved child. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
That’s the closest I can get to one of the great mysteries of faith. Jesus describes his relationship with God as a father and son, parent and child (Matthew 11:27). The Gospel of John famously posits this sacrificial relationship as the prime example of God’s love (John 3:16).
But the hope of the Gospel is that God does for us what we cannot do. In the traumatic call of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22), God stays Abraham’s hand. God says, “Kill your beloved child upon the mount which I say.” Then God relents and does that very thing through the cross of Christ. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
It is the grace of God who invites children into the fullness of God’s love (Matthew 19:14) rather than the terror of death. The Bible compares this God with the idols of the world — gods like the Canaanites’ Moloch, who demanded the sacrifice of children. Some of the harshest words of Leviticus are condemnations of Moloch. One of the differences between Israel and its neighbors, then, was that the God of Israel created life in the barren hope of desperate people — children for Sarah and Hannah, Rebekah and Rachel. The idols of other nations demanded the blood of children.
I went home after Ash Wednesday and saw the news. Children in Parkland, Fla., spent their Valentine’s Day cowering in classrooms, hiding from a school shooter. In a perverse way it was as if someone was scattering ashes throughout the school, reminding them all of their mortality. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But rather than hope for a way through death, they received another reminder — of a broken world that sacrifices its children to idols of violence and guns like a modern Moloch.
I look at my thumb, still black from soot. I want to make more crosses. I want to tell more children that God loves them and will never forsake them and will make a way through the valley of the shadow of death. I wish I could mark those tear-streaked, beloved faces.
My hand starts to shake.
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears on the fourth Friday of the month.