The Gospel of Ashes: A Priest’s Reflection
I’m standing behind the altar, preparing to wash my forefinger covered in ashes. Every year on a Wednesday in the late winter or early spring, I make this short walk from the floor of the nave to the credence table where I’ll dip my thumb and index finger in a soapy rinse. It’s one of those manual actions in the rhythm of the church’s year that has become automatic for me, a functional interlude in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday. Only this year—my eighth Lent at Apostles—I saw a new sign after I finished imposing the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the repentant. It was there on the tip of my forefinger. I saw myself; I saw the community I’ve been given; I saw the Body of Christ.
Seven Lenten seasons I’ve washed my fingers in this rinse and have noticed nothing significant. But this year I heard the Spirit speak a word of love through the dark symbol: this is life together along the Way of the Cross. Across the years our lives are mingled together. We share joys and sorrows together. We encounter spiritual gifts and sins within one another. We repent together; we forgive one another. We grow weary; we bear each other’s burdens. We journey together to the foot of the Cross.
I looked down at my forefinger with a new reverence, not for my own office or the authority to impose ashes. It was a reverence for beholding the unseen in the visible symbol. An involuntary prayer of gratitude arose in my heart for the solemn and holy gift of the Church.
Moments before, I had spoken the words of mortality numerous times: ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.’ Yet it was the binding of the ashes with each new person coming forward that revealed the Gospel to me. These are the people of the Cross. I belong to them. They belong to me. Our lives are anchored in an exchange of love because we belong to Jesus who loves us.
There is a principle in forensics that says two physical substances cannot make contact with one another without exchanging some trace of themselves. If I touch a table, I will exchange my fingerprints and cells with the smallest traces of dust or wood. No two substances can make contact without some evidence of exchange, even in the smallest traces.
In eight years of imposing ashes, I’ve learned that ashes gradually compound on the skin with each new person who comes seeking the way of repentance. When all have received the cross, ashes become a thick substance to rinse. It doesn’t come off easily.
But this year I didn’t want to wash my hands. I wanted to remain for just a few moments in the gift of belonging to Christ and his people. Even though this dark symbol carries the solemn words that I am dust; even though it is the sign of the gathered Church in small traces; I’m grateful to be bound together with a people who exchange their lives together in Christ. I’m thankful to be joined with those who refuse to pretend that death is real. I’m grateful to belong to a people who believe Christ conquers death. The community of the ashen crosses is a community of hope.
Even though I wanted to remain still for a few more moments and savor the gift of the Church, I knew I had to take the next step. I had to begin washing my finger against my thumb. Duty called.
I had to celebrate the Eucharist with clean hands. I had to move back to the floor of the Nave with bread and wine. I had to invite my brothers and sisters forward again, not with solemn words, but with words of life: ‘The Body of Christ keep you in everlasting life.’ This is bread to savor; this is wine to enjoy. Contact happens here. Even in the smallest traces between two persons, an exchange happens. Christ exchanges his love with our sinfulness and we are redeemed.
No wonder I want to linger here. This is where I taste and see the love of God. This is where I abide in hope until Christ returns to transfigure these ashes into an everlasting beauty, heavy with his glory.
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