Tonight my four year old came down the aisle of our sanctuary, stood at my feet, and looked up at me, her face framed by her characteristic curls, her big brown eyes rimmed in hot pink frames, her smile spread wide. I bent down, and traced a cross on her forehead with my ash-covered thumb.
Ashes and oil, dust and water, flesh and bone.
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Today, we mark ourselves with ashes to remind us that we are human, creatures of the earth, who have come from dust and that it is to dust we shall return. Today, we remind ourselves that there are limits to this life, that it has a beginning and an end.
This is my sixth Ash Wednesday as a pastor – the sixth year I have invited the people of Heritage Presbyterian Church forward so that ashes and oil, dust and water, might move from my flesh and bone to theirs. Each year I have spoken the same words to them:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
This year, for the first time, I invited them to respond. To speak their belief in response to the ash, in response to the dust, in response to the reality of their mortality.
In life and in death, I belong to God.
Ashes and dust, life and death. As each came forward, I spoke their name, traced that cross of ash upon their flesh, reminded them of their dustiness, and then I bore witness as they each proclaimed their faith.
As they spoke, I found memories flooding my mind’s eye: the phone call telling me the cancer was back – water poured forth at her baptism – fear and uncertainty confessed from a hospital bed – unbridled joy at the birth of a first grandchild – hands held and prayers spoken to send a dear wife home to God. Beloved one after beloved one, young and old, flesh and bone, speaking those words of faith – those words of truth – those words of life.
In life and in death, we belong to God.
As each person came forward, as each of those memories came flooding in, I realized another truth that is worthy of proclaiming on this Ash Wednesday.
Because we belong to God, we also belong to each other.