(photo by Rainier Ehrhardt)
“When death comes… I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world”
– Mary Oliver
Last night (Wednesday, February 25) we hosted an Ash Wednesday service. Even though Christians have observed some form of the imposition of ashes for well over a thousand years, it is a relative new observance for Baptists.
Yesterday I worked on the meditation or reflection for the service, experimented with the ash mixture with olive oil (no one teaches these things in seminary), and went over the order of worship with several of the other ministers. Just as we were wrapping up our church supper, I robed up and joined the other ministers in the sanctuary were we sat quietly for the service to begin.
I love a church service that begins in quiet: no piano, or idle gabbing, or frantic, last minute activity. Just to sit for a few brief minutes and listen to the pews creak while finding stillness can be such a gift.
The first half of the service was filled with music, scripture readings and reflections and so even to the most stalwart of Baptists it was still a fairly typical worship service, if not a bit more subdued than usual. I transitioned from my message on penitence and mortality – traditional themes for Ash Wednesday – into an explanation of the imposition of ashes.
Traditionally the sign of the cross is marked on the foreheads of the worshippers as the minister recites the phrase: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I was a bit concerned that the marking of the forehead may be a bit much for the congregation, most of which have never participated in such a service before. It is such a public thing, to be marked by ashes on the forehead. I feel like such a spectacle and so I no doubt projected that anxiety on to others. As a compromise we chose to mark the palm of the hands with the sign of the cross, which also provides symbolism of the nail marks of Christ’s own hands.
What I was not prepared for was the overwhelming emotion I felt as one by one members, family and guests alike came forward and opened their hands to me to be marked. The hand can be such a powerful and personal extension of a person. There was the grimy hand of a child, still lined with dirt from play, who nonetheless opened it up to be marked as I said: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. One by one they patiently came to be marked. Old, arthritic hands who may not even be here next year; hands of young married couples with a “whole life in front of them”; calloused hands, soft hands, large hands, and frail hands – one by one opened up to be marked. Some hands belonged to folks who have suffered the death of someone they love and cherish. Other hands just innocently were opened with no such sense of loss.
I found myself leaning in close to each one and without much thought clasping their hand with mine as I marked them with the cross. For a few there were messy, ashy hugs by the communion table and for some just an intimate exchange of knowing glances. I realized as never before that we are in this together – this life, this death, this healing salvation of which we spend our entire lives seeking.
Marking the hands was initially a compromise to me. It turned out to be an avenue of cherished participation with my church family. Their hands, our hands, clasped together and held by the hand of God remembering that we are but dust and to dust we shall return.