By Amy Butler
Last week I received several expressions of gratitude for making myself available to impose ashes at two Ash Wednesday services. People said the kindest things, like: “I know you have so very much on your plate. Thank you for taking time out to lead services today.” I found these comments a bit curious, as leading worship is a rather significant part of my job description. So I began to wonder about why people were thanking me.
Ash Wednesday is typically a day that we consider our own humanity and reflect on our lives through the lens of inevitable mortality. It’s somber, and dark; sometimes it invites us to visit places we’d rather forget, places like regret or fear or sin. These reflective invitations don’t skip over the ministers who preside at Ash Wednesday services.
But we also are typically balancing more than usual at the start of Lent. We contend with the simple fact that we’re adding more services to what feels like a relentless cycle of Sundays that never stop coming at us and keeping us scrambling for something intelligent — if not life-changing — to speak from the pulpit every week. Also: running all over the building to find a clerical robe, relocated to a safe place while the robing room is being renovated; and hands covered with oily black paste; and juggling ash imposition stations to adjust for a sick colleague. So I guess I could see why some people felt the need to thank me.
What these kind-hearted folks didn’t know is that Ash Wednesday is my favorite work day of the entire year.
It’s always a holy honor to impose ashes, to touch a finger to a forehead in the shape of a cross and say those words that are hard and true: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, but the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.” We just don’t think about either the brevity of our lives or the unchanging love of God nearly enough as we speed through the world like go-carts on a track, around and around and around, trying to beat your brother and still not crash.
Because I’m the minister in that scenario, I get to host that moment with another human. When that happens, very often a mantle of holiness settles around the two of us and we live a suspended reality for just a few seconds. Sometimes the eyes of the person in front of me fill with tears; often I hear a whispered “thank you.” It’s sort of like getting to say over and over to people you love, “We share this experience you and me. And it’s OK to feel all the feelings because I’m here to remind you that God’s love sustains throughout them all.”
I mean, committee meetings are great and everything, but these Ash Wednesday moments are the ones that call us again and again to the vocation of ministry. It takes days to get all the ash completely out from under my fingernails, and even with that, I wouldn’t miss Ash Wednesday for the world.
This year, for the first time, I felt all of that and something different. It happened on several occasions, not just one, and each time I found I was the one whose eyes welled with tears. This year for the first time in my memory, Ash Wednesday felt reciprocal.
I mean, usually a colleague imposes ashes on me during worship, too, but this year I felt over and over that, while I was the one imposing the ashes, there was a holy exchange of some kind. It happened the first time at the midday service, when a congregant stepped forward and confessed she’d never had ashes imposed before and didn’t know what to do. I invited her to step closer and listen to the words as I made a smudgy ash cross on her forehead. “Don’t forget,” I finished, “you are a beloved child of God.”
She opened her eyes and looked straight at me when she said, “You don’t forget, either.” A lump rose in my throat as both of us teared up.
Later that night at the evening service, people came through my line one after the other listening to the holy words and then handing something holy back to me. A few times it was a hug. A couple of folks said, “That was my first time getting ashes and it was so beautiful.” One person said, “Thank you. And, I love you.”
After the service I asked my colleagues who were at different stations also imposing ashes whether they’d felt the same way I had. Yes, they said. The tears. The thanks. The, “you, toos.” All of these made up a concentration of holy that we just don’t see at church often enough.
The Sunday following Ash Wednesday, a congregant came through the line at the door after worship. “Thanks for the sermon,” he said, and started to walk on. Then he stopped and turned to look at me: “I want to tell you that I can still feel your finger touching my forehead, putting the ashes there. And I still can hear your words. I can’t thank you enough for doing that.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. But what I was really thinking was, “No, thank you.”
P.S. If you’re interested in reading a beautiful book about Ash Wednesday, pick up Sara Miles’ book City of God: Faith in the Streets.