I never quite know who it’s going to be, but I always know it’s going to happen. Every year on Ash Wednesday, I mark the sign of the cross on people’s foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And every year, one of those people sticks in my mind as the words stick in my throat.
My first year in parish ministry, it was a 90-year old saint named Angie. Angie was a Roman Catholic, but came to worship in the Lutheran church I served every Sunday. When Angie and his wife Esther eloped and got married in the 1930s, Lutherans and Catholics didn’t intermarry. Their marriage risked being disowned by both of their families. In fact, they lived apart for the first six weeks of their marriage for fear of telling their parents. When they finally told their parents and set up house together, they set about deciding where to go to church. Angie was a devout Catholic, and Esther was a devout Lutheran, and neither felt right about converting. So, for the 63 years of their marriage, they attended Mass together at the Catholic church and then went to worship together at the Lutheran church. By the time that I met Angie, he had been a widower for several years, but he was still there at the Lutheran church every Sunday, and on Ash Wednesday. Looking at that beautiful, gentle, faithful, loving saint of the church and pronouncing those words, I was struck by the awesome privilege of being his pastor, and I got so choked up it took me two tries to get the words out.
Another year, it was a toddler who came up with her mother. This child was the answer to fervent hopes and prayers and dreams for a couple who had struggled to conceive. She was a sweet, sensitive, vibrant child, very caring to those around her. I had recently heard her say to a crying infant, “Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay.” I had marked the sign of the cross on her forehead with oil at her baptism, and now I did it again with ashes. This time, as I whispered those words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I heard in my mind the addendum, “and that’s going to be okay, too.”
This year, my colleague Andy and I did “Ashes To Go”. We set up on the chilly sidewalk in front of one of the co-op congregations and offered ashes to anyone who stopped. Several members of the co-op stopped by on their way to work; other folks from the community saw us as they drove by and stopped. One gentleman asked for a clump of ashes that he could take home for his elderly mother, who couldn’t get out to receive ashes today. The one that stuck with me, though, was a young mother pushing a triple stroller. She came up to us, and with a mixture of hope and trepidation asked, “Do I have to be any certain religion to receive ashes?” “No, of course not,” we replied. “And could my kids receive them, too?” she asked. “Absolutely!” we answered. And so, I said those words again, for this mother and for her three kids, ranging in age from four years to about four months. This time, having learned something from Andy, the words were a little different: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, and may God mend all that is broken in your life.” The young mother thanked us both profusely, and then continued on her way with her family. As she crossed to the next block, I said to Andy, “You know, if she was the only person who stopped the whole two hours we were out here in the cold, it would have been worth it.”
We’re all dust, and we’re all returning to dust, but even the dust that we are is holy and precious in the sight of God. We’re all broken and in need of mending, but even (and especially) that brokenness is profoundly holy and precious to God. The profound and beautiful gift of Ash Wednesday for me is that it refocuses my vision to see that precious, holy, beautiful, dusty, broken gift in the people around me. I pray that I will keep that mended vision throughout Lent this year, and I pray that you will see it in yourself and in those around you, too.