My First Ash Wednesday

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Editor's Note: Today begins the season of Lent. The editorial staff and readers of bring to this space a diversity of experience with the traditions of this season. Some of us have been observing Lent from before our earliest memory. For others, this may be the first time we've observed Lent. For each of us, in every situation, we trust God will meet you exactly where you are; as you are. You are invited to enjoy the Ash Wednesday story here, as it gently ushers us into the season.

I pulled my hair back that Wednesday morning. Normally I wear it down, but long strands will sometimes flop down against my face, angling across my forehead.

That day, exactly one year ago, I swept my hair back. My forehead was bare.

At breakfast, I told the kids I would be attending an Ash Wednesday service at a church near ours. The service was at noon, I said, so I would leave around 11:40 to get there. I assured them that it was not a biblical mandate to get the ashes, and since our church doesn’t follow the custom, I saw no reason why they should feel obligated to attend; however, I would be delighted to have them join me. Did anyone want to come along?

They turned me down. Well, one of the girls considered it, but ended up getting a babysitting gig. So I went to my first-ever Ash Wednesday service alone, worshiping with Lutherans at the church building directly across the street from ours.

I got a late start and parked far from the door. I ran through the light rain without bothering to open my umbrella. Apparently Lutherans start right on time, because by the time I was slipping into the sanctuary a mere three minutes late, they had already finished the opening remarks and pastor’s welcome and were on the last lines of a hymn. I slid into a pew, set my purse down, and wiped beads of moisture from my forehead.

We followed a program with responsive readings, Scripture readings, hymns, and a children’s message about “I” being right in the middle of “prIde” and “sIn.” We heard a short sermon for adults, recited the Nicene Creed, prayed, confessed—kneeling—and said the Lord’s Prayer.

The ancient custom of applying ashes, they said, reminds us of the wages of sin; that we are dust and to dust we will return. The ashes remind us that our sins need to be removed by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.

We took communion first. Filing up, row by row, we were given the wafer, took a small cup of wine, and then presented our forehead or hand to the pastor for the “imposition of ashes.”

I presented my forehead; that is, I stood there in front of the pastor, my forehead wiped dry from the rain and swept clear of hair, a blank canvas for him to do his work of “imposition.”

As he smeared the ashes in the form of a cross, he said, “Though you are dust, Jesus died for you.”

I walked back to my pew, glancing at others in the room bearing their crosses. This was a first for me, to see a room full of people living with the ashen cross on their person in this way, remembering their frailty, their sin, dust on dust.

The fidgety little boy in the row in front of me quieted when he noticed the mark on his mother’s forehead. He pointed, then leaned forward and poked it, smearing the mark. Who can blame him? It’s impossible to ignore.

When the service was over, I walked out the door and popped up the umbrella. I didn’t want the ashes to wash off yet. I wanted to live with them a while longer.

As it turned out, I ended up wearing my ashes all day and noticed my own kids glancing up at the mark now and then, smiling. Though they missed the service, they couldn’t miss the symbol, the reminder, the cross.

Though I am dust, Jesus died for me.

Because I am dust, Jesus died for me.


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Modified reprint by Family Content Editor Ann Kroeker, author of Not So Fast: Slow-Down Solutions for Frenzied Families.