I admit that I have not always been enthusiastic about Ash Wednesday services. As a Baptist the holiday has seemed too “Catholic.” Many Baptist churches do not even observe Lent. During my ministry I have always acknowledged the official start to Lent, but usually with a Lenten Bible Study. No ashes.
In my final five years as a pastor I participated in an ecumenical service held at a nearby Congregational church each Ash Wednesday. But never a palm ash graced my forehead. Then a few years ago they began offering ashes on the palm or the back of your hand. I gave it a try. It was meaningful.
Then last night I attended the Ash Wednesday service at the Community Church of Sandwich, where I was a pastor for many years. The words, hymns, and quiet of the service spoke to me. “Ashes to ashes,” the preacher intoned.
It just so happened that earlier that day my wife and I had gone out for a Valentine’s Day lunch at a Chinese restaurant. On the way home we caught a glimpse of snow-capped Mount Chocorua in the distance. She mentioned our plans to have our ashes scattered at the summit of that peak after our deaths.
“I wonder who will bring our ashes up there,” she wondered aloud. “Our kids,” I replied. “Maybe our grandkids.” Then a few hours later I was listening to the preacher say the words “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
For months I have been reading the first century Roman philosopher Seneca as part of my morning devotions. (I read a portion of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Stoics.) I am on the second volume of a collection of works by the Stoic philosophers. I am presently in the middle of Seneca’s famous essay, entitled “On the Shortness of Life.”
It all seemed to fit. Suffering from vertigo for the last five weeks and having to walk with a cane has made me especially conscious of my vulnerability. I greet other people with canes. We compare canes. There is a cane camaraderie. A friend loaned me a crampon to attach to the end of my cane so I can navigate icy terrain.
I am now acutely aware of, and empathize with, older folks who have a difficult time walking. I know it is only a matter of weeks or days (I pray) before I am cane-free and skipping down the road. But for now I am very conscious that I am not immune to the Law of Entropy.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Infirmity and mortality put life in perspective. They bestow wisdom, which gives our days meaning. Life is precious because it is brief and fragile. “O Lord, teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) That is what I learned on Ash Wednesday.