At the end of the service,
When the ashes are crossed on my forehead
With the words, “Remember that you are dust,
And to dust you shall return,”
The liturgy plunges bone-deep
And a strange weariness overcomes me.
I sit in this for a moment,
But then remember:
There is much still to do in this day.
Decisions to be made,
Lessons to be taught,
Dinner to fix,
And another service, for goodness sake!
Action, energy are needed.
Caffeine is probably needed!
Yet in this moment, a memory arises,
From another Ash Wednesday several years before.
Following the imposition, the mother in the row ahead of me
Picked up her small ones from childcare
And returned for the end of the service.
All was well, till her son noticed the cross on her forehead,
The cross on my forehead,
The cross on the foreheads of every adult surrounding him.
He turned to his mother, and I heard,
“Where’s my cross? Why don’t I have a cross?”
and nothing could comfort him till my husband,
one of those who’d imposed the ashes that night,
marked the child’s forehead, too, with his still-darkened thumb.
To want the mark of humanity,
To long for the symbol that announces to the world,
we are but “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,”*
In dire need of mercy—
This desire seems nearly the complete opposite of
That which caused the first human hands to pluck forbidden fruit,
To doubt Goodness himself,
To seek equality with the Creator,
Independence from the Breath that gave Life,
Oh, yes, give me ashes,
Give me symbol,
Grant me humility,
The posture, before God and man,
Of complete and utter need.
For then your mercy, too, can plumb bone-deep,
Breath can bring dust to life again,
So that all I am, all I do,
May be known and seen
As Your greatest grace.
*a line from the hymn “O Worship the King,” which we sang in early morning prayer at Austin Corinthian Baptist Church this very morning!