“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I spoke that old phrase as I smudged the sign of the cross on the forehead of the 6-year-old girl in front of me. She was the first that night at the Ash Wednesday service.
Not only was she the first to come through the line, but, so far as any of our congregational historians can tell, she was also the first person in the history of our church to ask to have the ashes imposed on her forehead.
Going back to the 8th century, Christians around the world have marked the beginning of the Lenten season with worship on Ash Wednesday.
As with many things in the wider Christian tradition, Baptists have been late adopters in taking up some of the ancient practices that help foster a more robust spirituality among us.
Ash Wednesday affords us the opportunity to remember. We remember the creation story in Genesis 2 where “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7).
The dust of the ashes serves to remind us both of where and from whom we have come.
The ashes stand as a stark reminder of our mortality. Ash Wednesday invites us into faith practices older than we are and traditions that span across centuries.
Going back to the story of Job and his turning away from a too-small-vision of God’s way, he repents “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). In various corners of the canon, we find different biblical characters employing ashes to mark their bodies as signs of sorrow and repentance.
For example, Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:19, the wayward people of Israel in Jeremiah 6:26 and Ezekiel 27:30. Jesus invokes the practice in Matthew 11:31 when he issued warnings to those living in cities not heeding his invitation to repentance.
Many Christians’ resistance to embrace the imposition of ashes is rooted in concern for the outward “showiness” of it – as if soot smeared above our eyebrows is particularly glamorous.
Echoing the sentiment that Jesus warned against in his Sermon on the Mount, where he urged fasting to be done in secret (Matthew 6:16-18), some see imposing ashes as little more than spiritual showboating.
Of course, any of us can fall into that temptation, ashes or not.
Part of the reason I so strongly value the outward sign is because it is such a stark, powerful reminder of how thoroughly human we are.
Our only sure source of hope comes by way of God’s gift of grace, which assures us there is life beyond this frail, broken life.
Our congregation has evolved to the point of imposing ashes on worshippers’ foreheads who wish to receive them.
While the church has held an annual Ash Wednesday service for more than 20 years, it has taken time for us to take up the ancient practice of imposition.
For many years, we invited worshippers to come forward and take a piece of sackcloth to carry with them through the Lenten season.
Sackcloth is the biblical uniform of those who are suffering and mourning (Job 16:15 and Psalm 30:11, for example).
Eventually we started to set out a bowl of ashes on the table where the sackcloth squares were arranged in the shape of a cross.
We invited people to dip their fingers into the ashes to have a tactile reminder of our earthly origins, not to mention our earthly destinations.
Finally, last year, we decided we would make the offer for anyone who wanted to go a step further and have the ministers make the sign of the cross on their foreheads.
While most congregations make their ashes by burning the previous year’s palm branches and mixing the remnants with a little oil and water, we had not saved our past year’s branches.
Thanks to a little help from our Episcopal friends across the street, we had what we needed to make the offering of ashes available.
Not everyone opted to have the sign of the cross marked on their foreheads. Some people elected to have it placed on the back of their hands. Some just nodded appreciatively but moved on through the line.
But the vast majority opted to take up the centuries-old practice, starting with a 6-year-old who had to move her long, blonde hair aside to make room for the symbol of her mortality.
We baptized that same young girl a few weeks ago. “Buried to sin in death,” as she went under the waters. “Raised to walk in newness of life,” as she came up.
An ancient, outward sign of its own, reflecting an inward, spiritual experience that is deep and rich.
Isaiah was right indeed: “A little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).
Stephen Cook serves as senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., where he also has the privilege of teaching spiritual formation for first-year seminarians as an adjunct instructor at Memphis Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @StephenCook14.
Editor’s note: “Eyeing Easter, Walking through Lent,” EthicsDaily.com’s eight-week Lenten Bible study curriculum, is available here.