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Remembrance and Hope on Ash Wednesday

by David Romanik

In general, I am someone who believes that the imposition of ashes ought to take place during the Ash Wednesday liturgy. On their own, the ashes are morbid reminders that our days are numbered, while in the broader context of the liturgy, they point to our need for the grace that God promises in Jesus Christ. The prayer over the ashes from the Book of Common Prayer eloquently illustrates this point: “Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life”.

I do make one pastoral exception to this rule. Whenever I visit people in the hospital on Ash Wednesday, I bring ashes with me, since patients and healthcare workers are usually unable to attend religious services on that day. Several years ago, I was visiting a parishioner from my former parish in Pennsylvania on the evening of the first day of Lent. She had endured a fairly serious operation that morning, and was in the first stages of recovery. At one point during our conversation, I asked whether she would like to receive the imposition of ashes. She thought for a moment, and then said quietly, “You know what? If it’s all the same to you, I’m going to pass. I think I have had enough reminders of my mortality today.”

I’ve thought about this conversation frequently as we have begun our preparations for the season of Lent at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. Over the past year, we have received frequent and often overwhelming reminders of our mortality. The sheer number of people around the world who have died or been sickened as a result of the pandemic and the ways that our daily lives have been upended have forced us to contend with the frailty of our human nature on an almost unimaginable scale. As we have prepared for Ash Wednesday, that annual liturgical reminder that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return”, I have wondered seriously whether we’ve all had enough reminders of our mortality in recent months.

At the same time, however, I suspect that we need Ash Wednesday this year more than ever. While the day that begins our Lenten observance includes a potent reminder of our mortal nature, that’s not where Ash Wednesday leaves it. Ash Wednesday is actually one of the most hopeful days in the liturgical calendar. On one hand, it is the day on which we are searingly and brutally honest about the reality of the human condition: from our failure to honor the image of God in ourselves and others, to the fact that we and everyone we love will one day die. On the other hand, it is a day when we remind ourselves that Christ died for us “while we were yet sinners”; it is a day when we challenge ourselves to remember that despite our mortal nature, we have a future in God. Even the words that accompany the imposition of ashes are reminders of our unshakeable relationship with God: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return”. We were created from the dust of the earth, which is what we are and what we remain. Ash Wednesday is a day when we remember that, no matter what we have done to dishonor it, we are and continue to be bearers of God’s image.

Even as we are reminded on a daily basis of the frailty of our mortal nature, I pray that you will be comforted by the renewing promise of Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent: that you are, first and foremost, a person created in the image of God, and that nothing can take that away from you.

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