"On the High Road between Sante Fe and Taos, New Mexico is the village of Chimayo, a pilgrimage site invested with the traditions of Hispanic Catholicism. Here, at a shrine dedicated to Jesus, Our Lord of Esquipulas, is located a small dry well that is reputed to have healing qualities. People from around the world visit this shrine to 'wash' themselves with this healing dirt and to carry some home to their families. In the small room by the well, as a thanksgiving offering they leave behind crutches and pictures of themselves healed." (from Imaging the Word, Vol. 3, United Church Press:1996, p.156)
I went to my first Ash Wednesday service when I was in college. If the Presbyterian Church in which I was nurtured as a child had an Ash Wednesday service, I was never aware of it. The only exposure I had to Ash Wednesday was the smudge of dust on the forehead of my junior high school gym teacher. A Catholic woman, she went faithfully to receive ashes even before school started each year, but I never really understood why. I never really asked either.
However, in college I was hungry for deeper spiritual experiences. In addition to attending worship and the campus ministry at my new Presbyterian church I sometimes went to the mid-week Catholic masses on campus. My first Ash Wednesday service was observed with this gathering of brothers and sisters in Christ. Interestingly enough the priest who was pained by his inability to serve me the elements of the sacrament each week was now allowed to impose the ashes of repentance on my forehead. When we talked later we discovered it was as awkward for him as it was for me.
As a first time recipient of ashes I was overwhelmed with emotions and questions about what was happening. I questioned the meaning of the ashes, a simultaneous sign of sin and death, but also the very earth out of which we were created. I struggled with such a public act of personal repentance. I was used to a corporate prayer of confession and even my own private confessions, but the idea of carrying a sign of my private confession out in public was difficult to understand. I remember being struck as I heard the words that announced my mortality, "From dust you have come and to dust you shall return." I threw my heart and soul and body into the prayers we offered in that service as a way of trying to understand and experience the totality of of it, but it was difficult. It was challenging. It forced me to ponder issues of my own faith and life that I don't often ponder willingly.
Ash Wednesday is the entrance into the season of Lent, the forty days (not counting Sundays) of preparation for Easter, the celebration of the resurrection and new life it brings. The thing about new life is that it's hard, if not downright impossible, to experience it fully without experiencing death, real or symbolic. Celebrating Jesus having risen from the grave feels as empty as the tomb if we don't take time to dwell in the grave with him, if we don't spend time contemplating our own imperfection that causes pain and suffering and separation from God. Ash Wednesday is the opportunity to do just that, to contemplate and confession our sinfulness that causes rifts in our relationships with God and other people. Ash Wednesday is the opportunity to be reminded that our life on this earth is finite. It has a beginning, and it will have an end. God created humankind out of the dirt of the earth and one way or another we will return to the earth.
But at the same time Ash Wednesday, as a realization and recognition of our mortality and sinfulness, is also a place of healing. The first step toward receiving and rejoicing in the new life of resurrection is the step in which we realize that we can't get there on our own. The first step on the journey to the celebration of Easter is a reminder that we NEED Easter not because the songs we sing bring us joy, not because it is a sign of spring, not because the trumpets and choir give our souls lift after a long winter. The first step on the journey to the celebration of Easter is a reminder that we NEED Easter because we need the truths it makes clear. We need the forgiveness of sins. We need new life in Jesus.
In this way the ashes we receive are healing. They serve to heal us of our misconception that we can right our wrongs ourselves. They serve to heal us of our misunderstanding that if we just work hard enough we can save ourselves and others. They serve to heal us of our skewed vision that life without God is good enough.
Ash Wednesday may be an uncomfortable and foreign observance, but in our discomfort we are put in touch with the very one who can bring us comfort and solace and grace. Come and be challenged. Come and be convicted. Come and experience the depths of God's grace.