Ash Wednesday has always been an enigma to me. Growing up in a conservative, Southern congregation, we never spoke of this day. I remember seeing it on calendars, yet no one could really tell me what it was exactly about. It was not until I was in seminary that anyone gave me even a remotely accurate answer.
I was sitting in a class on preaching 1 and 2 Kings. I think we were discussing the healing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5, and we were discussing the imagery of washing and healing in the narrative. We were asked to turn to the person sitting next to us and quickly develop a contemporary image that equated the image of water in this text. My partner grew up in the Catholic Church and his immediate answer was “ashes.” The puzzled look on my face said it all; I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained to me the mysterious day known as Ash Wednesday. (As a side note, he had grown up in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Thus, Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday go hand-in-hand.) When worshippers assembled on Ash Wednesday, they came seeking forgiveness for their sins, much like the ancient Hebrews did during Yom Kippur. As they received Communion, the presiding priest would also take some ash and make the sign of the cross of each forehead. It is a reminder that life and death are intertwined. We cannot have one without the other.
Yet there is something else here. In her book Speaking of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “For those who have been baptized, there is some comfort in knowing that the ash cross goes on top of an earlier cross made from water. The promise of new life underlies the reminder of death, which is where we find the courage to go on with the Ash Wednesday service” (p. 71). It is what we also see in Psalm 51:10-12, where the poet writes, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” Whether you “celebrate” Ash Wednesday or not, remember that there is resurrection after the ashes. Life and death are intertwined. We cannot have one without the other.