You should know two things about me before I tell you what I'm thinking, though:
1. I like meaningful ritual. I like actions with symbol and communal meaning, rituals that connect me (and us) to something bigger and older than we are.
2. I did not grow up in the church, so I lack a lot of the baggage many others seem to carry.
I have many colleagues and friends who are, at best, ambivalent about Ash Wednesday. Part of me understands this, because when I came to the church I too thought it was a weird thing, a meaningless ritual that had been rightfully jettisoned from church practice during the Reformation, some kind of fake magic that was designed to control and manipulate people into giving more money to the already richest-thing-around overbearing church institution. (I've never been one to mince words, either...) The first year I went to an Ash Wednesday service, nearly a year after I started going to church, was the first time that congregation had done ashes in...ever. And I was one of those people who went forward but asked them to put ashes on my hand, not my head, because I thought it was creepy and weird and Catholic and I didn't really want to do it but I wasn't about to be the only person just sitting in the pew all alone either.
Now I love Ash Wednesday. It's one of my favorite services of the year, and it leads into one of my favorite seasons of the year. (Full disclosure: I seem to have particular love for the church seasons that are opposite the cultural season...I love Advent, which is all about waiting even as the culture runs around like headless chickens, and I love Lent which is all about darkness even though in the northern hemisphere our days get longer and warmer and sunnier and flowers bloom and whatnot.)
So...what is it that I love about Ash Wednesday?
I love that it gives us an opportunity to stop and repent -- to turn and focus where we should be focusing. Sure, we're Presbyterians so we have a prayer of confession every week, we admit our failings, the ways we wound our lives and the lives of others and the life of the world. We confront the ways we fall short of the glory of God, and we turn our attention to where it belongs...every week. But on Ash Wednesday, it's what we do...and that's about it. We name the ways we have fallen short, we pray to be turned toward the light again, we admit that we prefer darkness, we spend time focusing on looking for the right path.
But even more than that, I love that it's a service that reminds us that not only are we not perfect, we're also not immortal. We may try to cheat death with medical miracles, we may try to cheat aging with products and chemicals and makeup and hours of exercise, we may try to live forever through our own legacies. but we can't. In the end, we are all dust, and to dust we shall return.
And yes, we can think about this at other times...but not many other times. Most of the time when these ideas come up, it's at a funeral. But on Ash Wednesday we can remember, contemplate, and even celebrate our own mortality outside the context of individual grief (frankly, I didn't want to contemplate my own mortality while sprinkling my mom's ashes into the ocean....and that was the first time I ever touched ashes. I was busy grieving.). It's not often we get to acknowledge what we all know deep down--that no one lives forever, no one is perfect, and no one can walk this journey alone. We try to remind ourselves of these things throughout the year, but this is a day when the stark reality is all there is. We can look each other in the eye and say "We are dust, but God's love endures forever." We can affirm these two most crucial things about us as human beings: We are not God, but God is.
I am glad that protestants are (slowly but surely) reclaiming Ash Wednesday and Lent. This journey is an important one, and the ashes are a marker on our road, reminding us to let go of some things, embrace others, and turn to the light.