Note: Today’s blog is an excerpt from my 2011 memoir Craving Grace: A Story of Faith, Failure, and My Search for Sweetness. Used with permission.
Ash Wednesday, though a noted date on the traditional Church calendar, is not formally observed by many evangelical churches. In my West Michigan neck of the woods, for instance, most Christians think this day is for Catholic types only. Most of us grew up without knowing what Ash Wednesday is about. We’ve never practiced it, and we have no problem finding it odd and a little creepy.
Before Mars Hill [then my local church and my employer] became part of my life, my only formal experiences with the Church calendar had been the more or less standard observances: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter. Sometimes not even Advent and Lent. None of the churches I had been part of in the past had been big on liturgy—when it came to practicing sacred rites and rituals, we were willing to light purple and pink candles around Christmastime each year, but that was typically as wild as we got.
There is a practice on Ash Wednesday called the giving and receiving of the ashes. Traditionally the ashes are burned fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday—those who come to receive the ashes expect to have that fine, gritty palm dust put on their foreheads. They wear it all day in the shape of a cross, given in two small smudges by someone else’s ash-covered thumb. This is a way of remembering and mourning. We remember Christ’s time of temptation in the wilderness and we mourn his death. And we remember and mourn our own dying: the fact that death and sinfulness rule us finally, that even at our best we are full of the deceit and ingratitude and arrogance and self-motives that put holiness on our own strength permanently out of reach. It is a fine, gritty reality.
My first Ash Wednesday service, technically speaking, happened just a few weeks into the Honey Project. Leading up to the service, I kept hearing announcements about it, and with each one I became more relieved that I already had plans to be out of town that day. Truth be told, I questioned whether the service was necessary. It seemed like overspiritualized fanfare—silliness, even. And all things being equal, I wasn’t thrilled about looking like I had dirt on my face.
The next year, the Ash Wednesday just after the Honey Project and just before I joined the staff, we had a service too. That time I didn’t have a prescheduled excuse not to be there. Plus, I was a volunteer leader with a small group of high school students at the time, and those girls asked me to go with them. Feeling I had little choice in the matter, I went.
There were several hundred people there, maybe a thousand. We sang, prayed, and read Scripture together for a little while, then a group of people holding small bowls of ashes walked to the edge of the stage. The rest of us formed lines moving toward them, and person by person we were smudged. “From ashes you came,” the givers said—vertical smudge—“to ashes you will return”*—horizontal smudge. It was a cadence, a buzz that filled the room. They said it over and over, once to each person.
The bowl of ashes at the end of my line was held by a tall, gray-haired man whom I didn’t know. He smiled at me in a grandfatherly way. When I stood in front of him, he marked my forehead twice and told me, his face close to mine, that ashes were my starting blocks and my finish line. I went back to my seat, then for a while afterward I was caught up in watching the room. Everywhere I looked—right, left, in front, behind—there were two solemn gray smudges on every face.
It was half a year after everything. My fast was completed. I had kissed a man twice. I had failed tremendously in all kinds of other ways. Grace had been happening to me with such ferocity that I had actually begun to recognize it and even expect it. For decades of life and faith I had taken meticulous care to keep my nose clean—now I was wearing my sin and brokenness on my forehead.
Glancing around the room, I was glad to publicly admit that I’m fallen. I was grateful for the soot-smudged folks who were there with me, showing me how.
(Want to read more? Order Craving Grace here or at your favorite online bookstore.)
*These phrases are similar to the reference to Genesis 3:19 in The Book of Common Prayer: “You were made from dust, and to dust you will return” (NLT).