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Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

If you think about it, the imposition of ashes is almost startlingly intimate. A priest pushes your hair back (a gesture usually reserved for one’s child or lover), looks deep into your eyes, and marks you with the sign of the cross. In many ways, it is this intimacy provides context for what the priest says in this moment: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or, more straightforwardly, “Remember you are going to die”. In any other situation, this would be an ominous warning, but on Ash Wednesday, framed within the intimacy and love of the Christian community, these are words of grace: reminders that we are part of the creation that God called “good”. This point is further illustrated by the fact that the priest traces the same spot on our forehead where, at our baptism, we were “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever”. Even as we are reminded of our mortality, in other words, the imposition of ashes affirms a central assumption of the Christian faith: that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

This year, the imposition of ashes will look different at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. As we continue to revise the rituals of our common life in light of public health precautions, we realized that the traditional imposition of ashes simply involves too much physical contact. We have heard a variety of suggestions of ways to mitigate the risk: from wearing gloves (and changing them for each person), to using a cotton swab. While these possibilities have their merits, the general consensus is that they simply feel too clinical. For this reason, we have decided to follow the examples of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, both of which have recommended that ashes be distributed by sprinkling them on the heads of the faithful. Instead rubbing ashes on your forehead, the priest will sprinkle them on the top of your head. This practice actually predates the form with which most of us are familiar, and recalls a similar act in the Burial Office, when earth is sprinkled on our mortal remains and we are reminded that God’s love transcends even the power of death. Though the imposition of ashes will look different this year, it will make the same theological point: that we have been created by God and marked as Christ’s own forever.

Ash Wednesday Schedule (February 17)

8:30 a.m.

Ash Wednesday Liturgy in English and Swahili

with Holy Eucharist and Imposition of Ashes (Nave)

12:00 p.m.

Ash Wednesday Liturgy in English

with Imposition of Ashes (Courtyard)

5:30 p.m.

Ash Wednesday Liturgy in English

for Families and Children (Courtyard)

7:30 p.m.

Solemn Liturgy of Ash Wednesday in English

with Holy Eucharist and Imposition of Ashes (Nave)

This service will be livestreamed on Facebook Live

Please register for each service at

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