I was 24 and living in Mill Valley, Calif., when I first encountered Ash Wednesday. The Christian liturgical calendar had figured not much at all in my Southern Baptist experience to that point. But one February morning in 1983, spurred more by curiosity than anything else, I climbed into my VW Rabbit along with four classmates from Golden Gate Seminary and drove to a tiny Presbyterian church in nearby Sausalito.
The service was set for a ridiculously early hour—six or six-thirty as I recall—so that commuters could attend before heading to work in San Francisco. I stumbled through the door, shivering and half-awake, looking for caffeine and sugar (give me a break, I was new to this). To my profound irritation there wasn’t a single coffee urn to be found. No donuts, either. Only a faint light coming from the sanctuary where approximately thirty people were gathered, some with their heads bowed, some on their knees.
My friends and I slid into a pew. The service began. A woman stood and read from the prophet Joel: Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.” We chanted “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” We prayed. We read from the Sermon on the Mount and from the Psalms.
Then the elderly pastor took his place at the altar, a small bowl in his hands. With tenderness he said, “Brothers and sisters in Christ, I invite you in the name of the Lord to observe in the coming forty days a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the Word of God. To make a right beginning, and as a mark of our mortality, let us now bow before our Creator and Redeemer.”
Around the room people began shuffling forward to receive the imposition of ashes. A few lingered in the pew, praying. Some wrote confessions on pieces of paper. Some wept. When it came my turn I stood nervously before the pastor. My chief concern at the moment had nothing to do with sin—mine or anyone else’s. “What do I do with my bangs?”
As if reading my mind, the pastor smiled and brushed my hair aside with a fluid motion. His liver-spotted thumb traced the shape of a cross on my forehead. The sensation startled me, as if I’d been seared. “Remember that you are dust,” he said, “and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.”
Then he turned us loose. We straggled into the cold light, each of us branded with the sooty reminder of our frailty and need.
Thirty years have passed since my first Ash Wednesday. Along the way I have learned what most Lenten pilgrims discover—that the presence or absence of coffee (or chocolate or TV or wine or whatever) matters only insomuch as it leads me to some genuine way of rending my heart. We arrive at Easter only by way of ashes.