A few years ago, probably during my second Ash Wednesday service, but it might have been my first, as presider, I was a little shocked when a boy in the congregation came forward to receive ashes. He was probably in second grade or thereabouts. As I smeared those black sooty ashes upon his forehead, reciting the ominous reminder, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return," I found grief welling up in my throat. Death, unnatural death, came close. Here I was telling an eight-year old boy, "Remember son, you will die." It was unexpected and full of emotion.
Telling children that they are going to die has become easier. I even managed to tell my own son, six years old, those very words last night. But yesterday I also had adults who are wrestling with death in a very real way. A spouse of a member came forward to receive ashes. He had just recently receied word of a very serious cancer in his body. I wondered at how useful it was for him to hear, "Remember that you are dust and to dust your shall return." Another member told me of having a biopsy scheduled for today. The reality of death draws near. This news of biopsies and PET scans are stark reminders that in our broken world, even our bodies rebel against us. Perhaps they serve as starker reminders than the ashen smudge on our foreheads. Are they even necessary?
But those ashes serve an even starker reminder. They are not applied as mere smudges. They follow the same pattern as an earlier anointing. Those ashes are imposed on our foreheads in cruciform manner. Even in the midst of death, there is no need for despair. Cancer spreads? Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. And Christ is there, promising new life to those he has chosen. All of the ways that we die and are isolated from neighbor and God are made clear on Ash Wednesday, but they are not stronger than God's intentions for us. These ashes are indeed a stark reminder for us. But mainly they should be a stark reminder of God's love for us, a love that is meant to bring about a new life in the Kingdom.