When the first Hunger Games movie was released in 2012, my daugh­ter Bethany was 11 years old. Influ­enced by a deter­mined lob­by group of pro-Hunger Games pre­teens at her school, she mount­ed a vig­or­ous cam­paign at home. She very bad­ly want­ed to see the movie; I was equal­ly com­mit­ted to her not see­ing the movie.

At one point, com­plete­ly exas­per­at­ed, I demand­ed of her, Why in the world would you want to see a movie that por­trays the death of chil­dren as entertainment?” 

Her answer sur­prised me. I think, Mom,” she said thought­ful­ly, that for a sto­ry to real­ly mat­ter, you have to know that the stakes are high. You have to real­ize that it’s life or death.” 

I won’t tell you who won the movie debate. But I found myself remem­ber­ing Beth’s insight into sto­ries almost exact­ly a year ago, after I attend­ed my first Ash Wednes­day service. 

Ancient Rhythms

My hus­band, Mark, and I both came to faith in the sort of evan­gel­i­cal envi­ron­ment where church cal­en­dar” means a list of con­gre­ga­tion­al events and birth­days. We cel­e­brat­ed Christ­mas, of course, and East­er too — but that was about it. My expe­ri­ence with Advent was lim­it­ed to choco­late-laden drug­store cal­en­dars. Pen­te­cost was for the charis­mat­ics down the street. And Lent was a mys­te­ri­ous, rather goth­ic obser­vance reserved for the Catholics. 

It wasn’t until we were well into adult­hood that we became more curi­ous about the ancient rhythms of the church. We devel­oped some friend­ships with folks who were fol­low­ing Jesus in litur­gi­cal tra­di­tions, and we could see that their obser­vance of cer­tain rit­u­als and sea­sons was bring­ing them life. No mat­ter how relent­less­ly the world of clocks, crises, day-timers, and dead­lines marched on around them, they seemed con­nect­ed to a dif­fer­ent rhythm — a more cos­mic sto­ry that con­tex­tu­al­ized the chap­ters in their own lives. 

We want­ed in. 

So, slow­ly, we began to tune our own lives to this alter­nate rhythm: Advent, Christ­mas, Epiphany, Lent, Pas­sion­tide, East­er, Ascen­sion, Pen­te­cost, and back through Ordi­nary Time” to Advent again. This way of mark­ing time con­tin­ues to evolve for us — we still attend a church that observes only some of these sea­sons — but when­ev­er we allow the litur­gi­cal cal­en­dar to cal­i­brate our hearts and minds, we find our­selves plunged a lit­tle deep­er into God’s story. 

My First Ash Wednesday 

We’ve observed the 40-day (plus Sun­days) sea­son of Lent for a few years now, embrac­ing var­i­ous mild-yet-dis­rup­tive restric­tions (giv­ing up cof­fee or soda or sweets) in order to desta­bi­lize our­selves and expose the tox­ic lit­tle ways we rely on crea­ture com­forts instead of the Cre­ator. Our sac­ri­fices in this sea­son are so minus­cule as to be laugh­able, except that our Father seems only too will­ing to use our tiny offer­ings as por­tals for his grace. Every hunger pang or caf­feine crav­ing becomes a holy prompt—pray, trust, sur­ren­der. The whole sea­son becomes a bit deli­cious with antic­i­pa­tion: East­er is coming!

Still, for all our blos­som­ing enthu­si­asm for the gifts of the Lenten sea­son, Mark and I haven’t known much about the obser­vance of Ash Wednes­day. If we had once dis­trust­ed Lent as a lit­tle macabre, Ash Wednes­day — the first day of Lent, which some church­es observe with a litur­gy of pen­i­tence and a rit­u­al of ashen cross­es — seemed to be the dark­est of all pos­si­ble hol­i­days. And yet, last year, we found our­selves search­ing web list­ings for a church in our area with an Ash Wednes­day ser­vice. I guess we fig­ured that if we were going to do Lent, we might as well show up for the open­ing ceremonies. 

We read about a church offer­ing an evening ser­vice in a neigh­bor­ing town and set about try­ing to find it on a night both dark and rainy. We got lost, we argued, we con­sid­ered just head­ing home and watch­ing the hock­ey game instead. But, some­how, we man­aged to per­se­vere, and, wet and grumpy, we snuck into the ser­vice 20 min­utes late. 

We sang a few wor­ship songs. Some Scrip­ture was read. And then came the moment when we were expect­ed to go to the front and allow the min­is­ter to place a cross of ash­es on our foreheads. 

I don’t know where the ash­es came from. I’ve heard that church­es who observe Ash Wednes­day will often save and then burn the branch­es from the pre­vi­ous year’s Palm Sun­day — a prac­tice I find beau­ti­ful­ly poet­ic and deeply mys­te­ri­ous. I hoped my first Ash Wednes­day ash­es had that sort of back sto­ry, but I don’t know. 

What I do know is that we went for­ward, and a man I’d nev­er met before — but who had tak­en vows to shep­herd the likes of me — put his thumb to my fore­head, looked me in the eyes, and told me: Remem­ber that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

I had no idea what the prop­er litur­gi­cal response should be. Thanks be to God? And also with you? Amen? What does one say to the procla­ma­tion that one is dust? I think I just nod­ded. I might have mum­bled, Okay.”

The ser­vice wrapped up; there was still time to watch the third peri­od of the hock­ey game. We left our smudgy cross­es on our fore­heads, and when our teenagers came home and saw us, we chuck­led at their bemused mix of awe and chagrin. 

Why on earth would you go to a ser­vice just to be told you are dust?” demand­ed my daughter. 

It was only lat­er, drift­ing off to sleep, my ash­es washed off but my skin still tin­gling in a cru­ci­form pat­tern, that I real­ized the answer to my daughter’s ques­tion. For a sto­ry to real­ly mat­ter, you have to know that the stakes are high. You have to real­ize it’s life or death.

We Are But Dust 

The human sto­ry—my sto­ry—begins, of course, in Gen­e­sis, when God takes a hand­ful of dust, shapes it into a man, and brings him to life by breath­ing into his nos­trils (Gen. 2:7). One chap­ter lat­er, the first humans have already for­got­ten where they came from and attempt­ed a coup. God explains to Adam and Eve that their desire for eman­ci­pa­tion is real­ly a death wish. Cut­ting them­selves off from him is cut­ting them­selves off from the breath of life. For dust you are,” he reminds them, and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19).

The sto­ry unfolds from there, and from the human side of the plot­line it’s pret­ty bleak — a dusty litany of wars and rebel­lions as humans orbit fur­ther and fur­ther away from the One who can breathe them back into life. 

But the king of glo­ry is also king of the plot twist, and he comes — made of the same dust as us — in the per­son of Jesus. Every year in our cel­e­bra­tions of Advent, Christ­mas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Fri­day, East­er, and Pen­te­cost, we remem­ber his com­ing, his endur­ing, his sac­ri­fice, his vic­to­ry over death, and the life he offers to us now. 

The Gospel of John cap­tures a moment in Jesus’ sto­ry that, until very recent­ly, I some­how missed. Jesus has risen from the dead, and his dis­ci­ples, con­front­ed with the reorder­ing of the cos­mos, are filled with equal parts ter­ror and joy in the radi­ant pres­ence of their friend. I imag­ine they must have felt like their fear could melt them down to ash, until Jesus exclaims: Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am send­ing you” (John 20:21).

And with that,” John tells us, he breathed on them and said, Receive the Holy Spir­it.’” (v. 22). 

With­out the breath of God, we are but dust. On the brink of Lent, Ash Wednes­day helps us remem­ber the life and death stakes in our own sto­ries, prepar­ing us, in the words of Eugene Peter­son, for a kind of death that the cul­ture knows noth­ing about … mak­ing room for the dance of resurrection.” 

Thanks be to God.

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished Feb­ru­ary 2017 in Chris­tian­i­ty Today.

Originally published February 2017

We’re glad you’re here!

Help­ing peo­ple like you abide with Jesus is why we post resources like this one. Always ad-free, Ren­o­varé is sup­port­ed by those who know soul-care is vital. Would you join us?

Donate >