Did the Lutheran pastors of my childhood really preach that message? Probably not. But that was the message, I heard. As I think about it, having a pastor smudge ash on a forehead and solemnly say, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return” probably does seem excessively gloomy to an elementary school child.
As a grown-up, however, the message of Ash Wednesday seems increasingly relevant. I remember one Ash Wednesday driving to services with my car windows rolled down. As I drove past the latest development site, I smelled the burning of trees being cleared away to make room for a paved over shopping center/condo complex. I heard the Ash Wednesday message in a different way that night.
The most poignant Ash Wednesday for me was the one where my mother-in-law lay unconscious in the ICU ward of the hospital. I went to visit her before the service, and I saw the black cross of ash on her forehead. I wondered if our pastor had already been by.
But then, I realized that all the patients in the ICU lay there with a black smudge on their foreheads. I asked the nurse about it. She told me that a priest had come through to bless everyone. I wanted to ask her all sorts of theological questions about the implications of letting a priest smudge everyone without knowing their religious backgrounds, but I knew that she had patients to monitor, so I let it go.
My younger self would have been outraged, but my older self continues to ponder the implications of smudging crosses of ash on the foreheads of unconscious ICU patients. The ICU is the place where I find my belief in resurrection most challenged; it seems that viruses and bacteria will inherit the kingdom of God long after they’ve killed us all off.
But after all, isn’t the ICU experience an essential element of the Ash Wednesday message? We are here for such a short time. We try so hard to preserve what we have, thus ensuring that we will have to watch what we love flake away from us. We are dust, and we will return to dust sooner than we care to think about. As an adult, Ash Wednesday has become one of my favorite services. I need to be reminded of the importance of prioritizing, and that God's priorities may not match those that the world would tell me is important.
Ash Wednesday also reminds us that we are resurrection people. We know that God is working to redeem creation in ways that we can't always see and don't often understand. We rinse the ashes out of our mouths with the Eucharist bread and wine.