Editor’s note: From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, bloggers for The Mennonite will write reflections on the Lectionary text. All eight reflections will be available at themennonite.org/lent. Sign up for our TMail newsletter and follow us on Facebook to receive the reflections.
One of the first times I attended an Ash Wednesday service was during a seminary internship semester while working in the Office of Religious Life at Occidental College in Los Angeles. My colleagues and I helped organize the service and participated in the distribution of ashes. I remember being surprised by the emotional response I experienced as I marked participants with the smudged symbol of the cross, repeating the refrain, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Something in that simple practice drew me to the grounded call to simple living and humility in our Anabaptist tradition. I found myself thinking especially of my grandparents and other family and community members who have lived their lives with a stoic commitment to servanthood and selflessness. As a communal practice it felt similar to sharing in Communion or footwashing, and incorporating the ritual into a worship service felt familiar in a comforting way.
I also felt some discomfort that went beyond simply experiencing a tradition or ritual for the first time. It had to do with my own sense of self-worth. I felt myself being carried back to middle and high school memories of rejection or ridicule from peers who suggested I was somehow less than whole. During those adolescent years my church family gave me a sense of wholeness and belonging during a time when I did not always believe that to be true. I relied on my faith community to provide me with a reminder that I was worthy. There was something in acknowledging that I am dust that brought back a reminder that I have not always felt included or loved.
My work as a campus minister has been a painful reminder that many young people do not have that same experience of church, and many carry pain directed at them by people of faith who have made them feel like they do not belong because of some aspect of their identity. Ash Wednesday and other church experiences become toxic when we focus too much energy on reminding people that they are somehow flawed and worthless rather than the reminder that out of dust comes new life, vibrance, wholeness and well-being.
For the past few years, I’ve joined with other campus pastor colleagues in offering “Ashes on the Go” on our campus. We set up a station in a public place at Penn State, and if students are interested they can stop to receive ashes and a prayer before continuing their day. It is not restricted by religious, ethnic, economic or gender identity but is open to any and all who want to engage. I have been deeply moved by the centering and slowing effect this has on participants. Frantic and stressed behavior as they hurry to class is replaced by peace and calm. Anxious movement is replaced by momentary groundedness and appreciation for that shared experience. This practice has given me a new lens to understand the ritual of Ash Wednesday. Often the prayer requests that students bring to “Ashes on the Go” are about a feeling of inadequacy or fear of failure. In that space, we have an opportunity to remind young people they are valuable, worthy and included in God’s expanding love.
The Lectionary Scripture texts for Ash Wednesday include a prophetic text from Isaiah 58. In those lines of Scripture we read about a centering call for God’s people to move beyond their righteous piety and ritualistic hypocrisy to a place of compassion and love. The prophetic call is to turn from our inaction and strive for a better world so that “your light shall break forth like the dawn.” It is a reminder that our outward religious rituals are meaningless if they do not compel us to reorient ourselves to those in need of hospitality and empathy. This passage suggests that our ritual practice is a waste if it does not also compel us to work to break the bonds of injustice and offer ourselves to those most in need of compassion and hospitality. This text also reminds us there is danger in focusing too much energy on our fragility and weakness. Our calling should be to lift up and care for those who have been marginalized and told they are not worthy and remind ourselves of the abundant and radical love available to all.
Ash Wednesday can serve as a reminder that we are broken and sinful, unworthy of love and in need of redemption. But this practice is foolish unless we couple it with the reminder that we are also whole and righteous, abounding in love and redeemed not because of our actions but simply because we are made in God’s image.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, but also know that you are loved, valued and your light will break forth like the dawn.
Ben Wideman is campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania.