I used to think it was the ashes that were weird.
I didn’t grow up with ashes on Ash Wednesday. It was my Catholic friends who got out of school over lunchtime and came back with the strange smudge on their foreheads. We had the 40 days of Lent too, and we also had “Ash Wednesday,” but we didn’t put ashes on our foreheads back then, which means that we also didn’t hear the haunting words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Now, after drawing many crosses on many foreheads, I don’t think the ashes are so weird any more. Now, after going to many cemeteries and throwing dirt over many coffins, and making the sign of the cross and saying, “The Lord bless her and keep her ” many times, I don’t think it’s so weird.
And I hear that even people who don’t go to church sort of get the ashes: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” You don’t have to live very long to experience that.
But you know what I think is weird?
The confession of sins.
It’s one of the weirdest things we do in church, not only Ash Wednesday, although it takes on special significance on Ash Wednesday.
We actually confess our sins.
Think about it. Most of the time we try to convince one another, and even ourselves, that we are “pretty good.” Most of the time we try to hide our flaws, like the bottles hidden in the closet, the rags in the attic, the stuff in the basement that we haven’t gotten rid of yet.
But on Ash Wednesday we actually open the closet door and let all of the secrets tumble out. We let all of the secrets tumble out, and fall on the mercy of God. It is the beginning of our Lenten disciplines: telling the truth.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked by the cross of Christ.”
Ash Wednesday: telling the truth.
Diane Roth is the associate pastor at Woodlake Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Richfield, Minn. Prior to her call to Woodlake, Diane served for four years as pastor to three congregations in rural South Dakota. She also has been a missionary and teacher in Japan.