On Wednesday, Feb. 14, there will be lots of symbols floating around. Of course we’ll see hearts in all shapes, colors, sizes and media for Valentine’s Day, but this year Feb. 14 also happens to be Ash Wednesday. So we’ll also see crosses of ash, marked dark and looming large on the foreheads of many Christians.
Ash Wednesday is a penitential holy day, a time we confess our sin and commit to turning away from wrongdoing and evil and turning back to God — quite a contrast to the cheerfulness of Valentine’s Day, to be sure. Why do we do it? And who does it, anyway?
Christians who are part of liturgical traditions (following a set pattern for worship and marking the year by seasons that point us to Jesus) observe Ash Wednesday. We are bold enough to admit that we are not all that God intends us to be, even on our best days. We join together with others to confess our sin and to be marked with the cross — a cross of ashes and the bleak reminder, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. God created from the dust of the earth and blew holy breath into us for life; when that last breath leaves us, we return to dust.
Ash Wednesday may not be particularly exciting, but it is important. It’s a bit like doing the fourth and fifth steps of AA: taking a fearless moral inventory and admitting it to another person. It actually is good for the soul to notice what is cluttering us up, what is taking up space and energy and preventing us from being whole. It’s good to admit it to ourselves, to confess it to God and to let it go. It’s good to be reminded that we are only dust — perhaps not as big a deal as we work so hard to be. It’s good to have a chance to turn and walk in the ways of God.
But the ashes on our heads in the shape of a cross are a visible reminder, to ourselves and to others, that while we may be only dust, we are God’s dust — beloved, redeemed, made whole in Christ Jesus. So if you see someone with ashes on their head this day, remember that they’re thinking about what it means to be human and what the divine has to say about that. God makes us in God’s own image and fills us with God’s own breath! And if you’d like to participate in this important ritual, to feel for yourself this confessing and letting go, please find a worship service at one of the many churches that will be gathering this day. Or find one of the ELCA Lutheran pastors with Ashes to Go — from 8 to 10 a.m. at The Goat Coffee House, 336 Water St., or 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. across from the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, 400 Eau Claire St.
Ash Wednesday is a mark — a mark on your head to remember you are God’s dust and a mark in the year when stop and take inventory, returning to God. It’s the first step on the way to the cross and the new life on the other side. It’s a complicated day and hard — but one I know I need each year as the seasons circle round again.
The Rev. Lori Ruge-Jones is the pastor of the congregation and campus ministry at University Lutheran Church, Eau Claire.