I walked into my local coffee shop this morning. Cara was working. She my lesbian, roller-derby, barista friend. I was wearing my clerical collar, which I don't normally do. But Ash Wednesday made it appropriate attire for a few things on my schedule. I zipped my jacket up tight to conceal the collar. She doesn't know I'm a pastor. I'm afraid she'll freak when she finds out.
After a friendly exchange, she helped the gentleman behind me. She noted the ashes on his forehead. He proceeded to explain with pride that he did his Ash Wednesday duty by going to 6:30AM mass. "I got it out of the way early." This made me reflect on how Cara may have heard this: A useless religious ritual. An arduous duty. A cultural rite no different than fireworks on July 4th and roses on Valentines.
I walked away praying to God that if anyone had a mindless inclination to go to church today, that he forbid them from entering the church door. "God, if anyone is going to church out of cultural obligation, spare them of the vain effort." I'm not sure how sanctified my prayer was, but I had to go somewhere with my frustration. If it doesn't matter, don't do it. Don't insult God and don't make Christians look so mindless.
Ashes on Ash Wednesday find their origins back in Genesis 3:19. In light of the fall into sin: "for you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Adam's basic ingredient was dirt. He would simply be an inanimate object, except that the living God blew life into him (Gen. 2:7). Unfortunately, Adam and Eve's violation in Genesis 3:6 had a damning consequence. From then on, when breath leaves a human, they go back to dust. Ash Wednesday reminds us of this universal consequence.
Dust became life with a breath. But now our last breath means death and a return to dust. But that's not all. Resurrection means that the dust comes back to life again. Jesus is the breath of God to make lifeless dirt become truly human again - to put us back to God's original intention. Dust - Breath - Life - Death - Dust - Life again. Wear ashes mindful of your mortality. And hopeful that dust will breathe again.
Maybe I should go back and see if Cara is still working. This time, I'll wear my ashes.