Ashes and Dust
on Ash Wednesday + a writing prompt for you + February Writing Hour
I didn’t grow up with a tradition of ashes, in my Presbyterian childhood church. The first Ash Wednesday service I remember was in college—sitting up in the chancel in Duke Chapel. There were no more than 40 of us there. I walked out wondering what to do with the ashes on my forehead. Keep them to show as a witness of repentance and faith to the world? Or wipe them off, and keep my confession (and confusion) between me and God?
Every year, I wonder all over again.
Some years I’ve spent Ash Wednesday as a pastor, preaching about mortality and repentance, and placing the sign of the cross on the foreheads of parishioners. I’ve talked to children about how the ashes aren’t hot and don’t hurt, and really just remind us that we belong to God always, no matter what. I’ve brushed back the bangs of middle schoolers to ash a cross that got wiped off right after. I’ve looked in the eyes of a woman dying too soon, and put a trembling cross on her translucent forehead, as I said, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return...”
Some years, before and during Covid, I’ve shared Ashes-to-Go through car windows. I honestly didn’t want to like it, but found it a powerfully intimate liturgical act. It felt like faith in real life—praying with a parent before preschool drop-off, or sharing ashes with those heading to work a hospital shift. They would shift into park, put down their coffee thermos, lower the radio, and look expectantly at me, confident God was there too.
True confession—mixed in with the holy moments on this day, on many years, I’ve exchanged funny Ash Wednesday memes with clergy friends. (Does this cross make my ash look big?)
Sorrow, joy, laughter, loss. I think it’s all appropriate on Ash Wednesday. It’s what it means to be human, and loved that way.
This year I’ll be in the congregation as my husband leads a service. I’ve received ashes from him before, in those years just after our baby died, when I was the preacher’s wife instead of the preacher. I’ve even helped him make ashes—burning dried-up palm branches in what’s got to be the stinkiest church task ever, and why most of my churches just bought their ashes online.
In one of those years, I wrote in my journal about how sometimes—even long after loss—the reminder of mortality in a broken world is hard.
Ash Wednesday 2003
I watch as the ashes move from the clay pot to my forehead.
A few fall down on my face, on my nose, onto the chancel rail where my hands are clasped in a sort of prayer.
How do you pray when you know all too well that to ashes we all return?
ashes to ashes
dust to dust
How do I explain to my children that what is behind the stone with Jack’s name in the columbarium are ashes? How can a child understand that a living breathing living person can become the stuff of liturgy, that stains the forehead and the heart, and is swept away….but never really gone?
How can a child understand?
How can a mother?
If you are living with loss or too much brokenness this year, spend today however you need to. Consider mortality, or take a walk. Wear some ashes, or eat good chocolate. Plan a Lenten discipline, or plan a way to love yourself in Lent.
If you have church responsibilities and don’t have a choice, let me know if you need a funny meme today. Or send me one.
If Ash Wednesday is a day of thanksgiving or peace for you, I’d love to hear about it. Some years I get close—remembering how we are all created from the same dust that made the stars.
a writing prompt
Whatever today is like for you, here’s a writing prompt, good for pondering dust and starlight, humanity and eternity, from poet Dorianne Laux.
In Any Event
If we are fractured
we are fractured
bred to shine
in every direction,
through any dimension,
billions of years
since and hence.
I shall not lament
the human, not yet.
There is something
more to come, our hearts
a gold mine
not yet plumbed,
an uncharted sea.
Nothing is gone forever.
If we came from dust
and will return to dust
then we can find our way
What we are capable of
is not yet known,
and I praise us now,
You can also find my Ash Wednesday prompt from last year here: Underneath the Ashes
February Writing Hour - Saturday at 4 pm Eastern
Our next live writing hour on Zoom for paid subscribers is coming up this Saturday, February 25th at 4 pm Eastern. If you want to write in company with others, you are welcome to join us. You can upgrade your subscription for a month ($7) just to try it. A separate email to paid subscribers will go out with the link later this week.
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