My thumb is black with ash from this morning’s chapel service. “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
The rhythm of the phrase has been with me all day. Repentance, mortality, death. Ashes. This is what we remember as Jesus turns from the North, setting his face toward Jerusalem and a cross. I’m moved by his resolute submission as he takes the first step, like Abraham going to Moriah with a knife, and fire, and wood, but without a lamb. I think of trembling Isaac as his father lifts him onto an altar, “Not my will, Father, but your will be done.”
I once knew a young girl who, with a genuine grin on her face, wished me a “happy Ash-Wednesday” every year on this day. At the time, I didn’t think she understood what she was saying; that “happy” and “ash” don’t go together. I would smile and wish her a happy Ash Wednesday in return, remembering what it was like as a young kid having someone whom I thought so important put the mark of Christ on my forehead. It always left a quiet, heavy kind of joy.
I still have the ashes from my first Ash Wednesday. The solemnity of the service made such an impression on this twelve year old that before bed I scraped the remaining ashes from my forehead and saved them in a little paper box that I’d made, treasuring them like dirty, holy relics. The box is still in my closet, waiting for the resurrection.
What were those days like, I wonder, the days leading up to the crucifixion and the few dark days after it? How loud and how heavy was the permanence of it all? I sometimes think my students know better than I do. As a teacher you hear about things that break your heart. Students who cry openly as they ask for prayers for a mother dying of cancer; young ones wearing long sleeves to hide wounded wrists; insecurities that can be traced back to a broken home, that can be traced back to a broken home, that can be traced back to a broken home, that can be traced back to a broken Eden. They know about ashes. After all, from dust they’ve come and to dust they will return.
And yet there’s a secret about the ashes that only a few remember in the bitter midnight of this long, slow walk to the cross. It is a secret that I don’t pretend to fully understand, and that I don’t dare try to explain here in these few poor words. All I will say is this: I believe there will come a day when I will hear a chirping from my closet. I will open the door, and with heart burning like the men on their way to Emmaus, I will see that the ashes in that little paper box have turned into a bird with wings ready to fly free from any and every tomb.
With this great secret in mind, Happy Ash Wednesday, son.