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Ash Wednesday Reminds Us What We All Share

Here in the 53rd year of my life and in the 36th year of my ministry I participated in an act of worship in which I had never participated before – the imposition of ashes.
There were a handful of Catholic families in my hometown but I guess I never saw any of them on Ash Wednesday because it was during my freshman year at Mercer University that I first noticed the dark smudge on someone’s forehead.

Luckily, I did not know her well enough to suggest that she go wash her face. In a conversation with friends about it, I was informed that the girl was Catholic and that she had been to her church’s Ash Wednesday service early that morning.

Given the tremendous progress that I had already made in developing my critical thinking skills during my few months in college, I suspect my response was somewhere between “That’s strange” and “Huh” and “What’s for lunch?”

As the years have gone by – and my, how they have gone by – I have become more and more immersed, as have many Protestants, in the practice of observing the Christian calendar and especially the “non-ordinary” times of the Advent-Epiphany cycle and the Lent-Pentecost cycle.

I have found it and continue to find it to be a very helpful discipline in the ongoing effort to keep me aware – and to keep the flock of which I am the shepherd aware – of the “always” nature of our identity as Christians and of our following of Jesus Christ.

I had for a good many years led the Baptist churches I have served in an ashless Ash Wednesday service.

We would focus on remembering our mortality and on confessing our sins through the usual Baptist means of song, sermon and prayer – all following a fine fellowship supper, of course – but would stop short of actually using ashes.

Having become more and more convinced of the power of symbolism in our lives and of the power of physicality (we experience God spiritually but we are holistic beings in our spirituality and in our physicality so the only way we can experience God “spiritually” is “physically”) in our worship, I decided this year to go all the way and to offer the imposition of ashes to our people.

Thinking that some of our folks might be unfamiliar with or have reservations about the practice, we went to great pains to make it clear that participation was voluntary (as if anything in a Baptist church is not voluntary!).

We arranged the service so that the worshipers could come forward to receive both the ashes and the Lord’s Supper or only the Supper.

I stood at one station with the ashes while our associate minister Tom Braziel stood at the communion table to share the bread and the cup.

We printed words of guidance in the order of worship and repeated them orally so that the process would be clear: if they wished to have the ashes imposed, they could come to me; if they came with their hand outstretched I would impose the ashes on their hand but otherwise I would impose them on their forehead.

If they wished to bypass the imposition of ashes and go directly and only to the Communion table, that was fine.

I cannot say with certainty that of the 100 or so people in attendance they all received the ashes, but I can say with certainty that if participation was not 100 percent, it was very close.

I estimate that around 40 percent of the folks received the ashes on their foreheads and the rest on their hands.

It was not only the first time that I imposed ashes, but also the first time that I received ashes.

As the people came, I marked them with the sign of the cross and spoke the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked children and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked youth and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked young adults and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked middle-aged adults and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked senior adults and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked people who think a lot like I do and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked people who think differently than I do and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked people with whom I have much in common and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked people with whom I have less in common and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked my wife and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

I marked myself and said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

The experience struck me as an affirmation and an acknowledgement of our commonality: we are all dust, we are all temporary, we are all frail, we are all human, and we are all sinners.

But the thing that moved me the most – and this caught me off guard – was the simple act of touching them all.

MichaelRuffin is pastor of First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald, Ga. He blogs at On the Jericho Road.