One man's religion is another man's belly laugh
- Robert Heinlein
It can certainly seem that way standing on the outside. Take the ritual surrounding Ash Wednesday, for example. To most people, it must seem odd to voluntary walk around with a gray smudge on your forehead. And with no context, it is.
But I do have some context for this service.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenten season, which leads up to Easter. It's a service that reminds us of our mortality, and begins a 40-day period of contemplation and reflection so that the promise of Easter -- that the end of life isn't, well, the end of life -- can be more fully appreciated.
The Ash Wednesday service at our church this year was particularly moving, and one that fully engaged my senses. First, holding a service at night on a weekday is something different for us. The light coming through the windows was different, more diffuse.
We began the service outside the church with the burning of the palms. Traditionally, we wave palms in our Palm Sunday service (which is the Sunday before Easter). This represents Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem (when the crowds greeted him with waving palms) before being betrayed and arrested. The joy of that arrival turned to sorrow pretty quickly.
The palms used in our service are gathered up and kept for the following year. They're burned on Ash Wednesday, and their ashes used for that service. Symbolically, it ties the high and the low of the season together.
Watching the dry palms blaze gave me time to reflect on the passing year. The fire consumed the greenery quickly, and within moments it was over. How many times has my own life been changed as quickly?
When we went inside to complete the service, I could still smell the smoke which had permeated my clothes. Another reminder that this service was different.
At the end of the Ash Wednesday service, all the participants come forward and are marked with a cross on the forehead with ashes. The pastor reminded each of us that "from dust you came, and to dust you shall return."
The feel of the thumb making the mark on my forehead pulled my attention to that thought. I had recently been treated for cancer and survived. Survived this time, I reminded myself.
When I returned to my seat, I watched a young man from our congregation receive the mark. He had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. This would most likely be his last Ash Wednesday service. What did those words mean to him? To his wife? To us as their church family as we support them through their time of trouble?
I must not have been alone with these thoughts, because I felt a wave of emotion move through the room as he walked across the front of the sanctuary.
There was much to reflect on that night, as we filed out silently.
Perhaps I looked a little odd with my forehead smudged. But I didn't feel silly at all.