No Ashes for Wednesday

This column originally appeared on baptistnews.com on February 5, 2016.

What can you offer on Ash Wednesday if your jar of ashes is empty?

What do you give when you’re feeling empty? When the thought well is dry, when compassion is spent?

I opened the box that had been sitting on the pastor’s desk for weeks. “Ashes for 500” was scrawled on the top in thick black Sharpie. It was among the many loose ends that our minister of music graciously tied up in his final days before moving out of state. This would be only our second Ash Wednesday service ever, so we were grateful for every bit of help along the way.

The service the year before had been quite moving and holy, with perhaps the notable exception of the magician’s flash paper. It’s not an uncommon worship element to write down one’s sin and allow it to be burned in a flame, down to ashes, as a way to embody one’s confession and repentance, and God’s absolution. But rather than burn slowly, the flash paper is consumed in … well, a flash — a dramatic burst of light as it hits the flame and then disappears. As if they had seen God in the burning bush, worshippers continued forward after letting go of their sin paper, wide-eyed and a bit shaken, to receive the imposition of ashes on their forehead, a sign of their penitence and belonging to God.

Still, it was an incredibly holy moment for me, rubbing that sooty cross on each forehead as I pronounced a blessing over these friends. Many I have known for so long, but rarely do I stand so close or gently lay my hand on their head, look straight in their eyes and whisper the reminder that they are the beloved of God, marking them for God in that moment.  Read more…

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