But one thing I hadn’t considered, and wasn’t prepared for, was the impact of imposing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday. In a society that continues to deny that death is part of life, using tangible symbols to remind people of their mortality is countercultural. As a priest I am privileged – no, blessed – to be allowed into places in the lives of my parishioners where few others will enter. On Ash Wednesday it all comes home. Over the years I’ve given ashes to the elderly in failing health, and to a least a few who I know, though others may not, are suffering terminal illnesses; do these folks really need to be reminded of their mortality? And yet I say the words and make the sign. I’ve told very young children with beautiful faces, shining eyes, lives of promise: “…to dust you shall return?” Not for decades and decades from now, I hope, I pray; but there are no guarantees. What will a child take away from this experience? And then there are those vital people, the proverbial “picture of health” who can be expected to return year after year but once again, knowledge of our mortality prevents taking that, or them, for granted: “Remember, you are dust….”
So once again, tomorrow, I will stand behind the chancel rail and remind people I have come to love dearly that this life will come to an end and our bodies will eventually disintegrate. I will probably choke up at some point; I usually do. But I try to remember: God created us out of the dust of the earth, and we could do much worse than fear returning to it.