One by one they come forward. I press my thumb into the black sooty ash. On the forehead I make the sign of an ancient form of execution. Looking them in the eyes I say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” For some I have to stand on tiptoe to make the mark. For the children I bend down to sign their lifted brows.
After eleven years among them, I know these people – their pain, their struggles, losses, hopes, and dreams. I love them. They come to place themselves before the altar and ask for this – this sincerity, this frank acknowledgement of death. They come to receive the smudge that says they know they have fallen short and they are sorry.
In a culture which denies death, sin, and personal and corporate responsibility for wrong-doing, I am moved by these who come to stand before God and one another in radical honesty. Instead of wrinkle cover, make-up and hair growth tonics, they wear the sign that says they know they will die, and because of that, and because life is good, they want to live it well.
This never fails to shake me to core – people coming together in the dead of winter, here and there, all over the world to bow their foreheads for the ash, to be told they are going to die, and to lift their faces once again toward the warm sun of redemption.