Ash Wednesday, Lent remind us of mortality

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 8, 2014

By Cynthia Carter Howard

Lent is a 40-day time of preparation for the Easter Feast, which began this past week with the observance of Ash Wednesday. The name of this day comes from the ashes that are placed on the foreheads of worshippers as a sign of penitence and a reminder of our mortality.

The Ash Wednesday service is my favorite of the whole year (perhaps tied only with Easter). It is a time when we are reminded of things we would probably like to forget – things like our own mortality and our own shortcomings and failings. It is a time when we are reminded of things for which we are often not as grateful as we should be – things like the grace and love of the God who created us

As a priest, one of my duties during the Ash Wednesday service is to mark the forehead of each individual with ashes in the shape of a cross. As I do this, I say the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall re turn.” It is a sobering thing to do. I must look each of these people I love and remind them that they will die. I must tell them that their time on earth is limited and that there is no guarantee of another Ash Wednesday.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Babies and little children. Moms and dads. Young and old. Dear friends and people I’ve just met. As I mark these ashen crosses, my memories flash back to people like Charles, whose forehead I marked last Ash Wednesday and who died a few weeks ago, and to people like Marge, a woman in my last parish whose forehead I marked and who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia only 48 hours later.

When I look into these faces before me and when I recall those I love but see no more, it is profoundly moving. It is sobering. It is a moment to know that my life and the lives of those I love are gifts beyond my deserving. It is a time that reminds me who I am and what is important. It is a time that reminds me that I am created by God who loves me beyond my imagining.

So, as we begin this time of preparation for the celebration of the new, abundant life of the Easter celebration, let me end with the words of a benediction that I love, “My friends, life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make this earthly pilgrimage with us, so be swift to love, and make haste to do kindness, and the blessing of God, who comes to us as Creative Presence, Saving Grace, and Life-giving Spirit be upon you and all whom you love and pray for this day and forever more.”

The Rev. Cynthia Carter Howard is rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.