“All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” It seems like a grim way to introduce a season that culminates in Jesus’ victory over sin and death, but these are the words uttered by church leaders around the world as they apply ash to each worshipper’s forehead in the shape of a cross. This symbolic act marks the beginning of Lent — a forty-day period of repentance, preparation, and generosity leading up to Easter.
On this particular Ash Wednesday I am asked whether I prefer for my hand or my forehead to be crossed with ash. I opt for my hand. It will be easier to wash off after the service.
As everyone gathers, we sing and recite words that remind me of my sinfulness, frailty, and mortality. I also hear the invitation to stand in solidarity with Jesus the Suffering Servant, the Man of Sorrows, the Crucified King, and to stand up for the marginalized and oppressed. It seems fitting to kneel or lift my hands but I first look to see if others are doing that. Only a few are so I remain standing with my hands folded.
As the gathering comes to a close I see many wearing their ashes with gratitude. I’d be lying if I said the experience wasn’t moving, but I prefer to be moved on my terms, so I quickly retreat to the restroom to wash my ash-smeared hands. Fast forward three years and despite much growth in my walk with Jesus, I still prefer to be moved — to experience life with God — on my own terms.
Recently I learned that Ash Wednesday’s ashes traditionally come from the previous year’s Palm Sunday palm branches which are then dried, burned, and ground to ash. During Palm Sunday we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem to the waving of palm branches and the desperate yet hopeful cry of “Hosanna” (save us). We remember those hopes being reduced to ash as Jesus is crucified (how can a dead king save us?). This isn’t what they expected. But they probably didn’t expect resurrection either. I find myself in this story, being asked to confront my expectations about who Jesus is and how He works. I like to be comfortable. I don’t like surprises.
As Easter morning dawns, I am reminded that Jesus doesn’t offer me life on my terms, He offers it on His terms. Life marked by surprise, by the cross, and by resurrection. This is the truth my friends proclaimed as they wore their ashes all day on their foreheads. It’s the same truth that daily reshapes my expectations and shatters my illusion of control.
And isn’t this the Good News: that while we were dead in our sins, busy living life on our own terms, God made us alive in Christ through His death and resurrection? It is because of this act of sheer grace that my story doesn’t end in dust, but in glory.
Jared resides in Langley, BC with his wife Ruth Ellen and 2-year-old son Anthony. He oversees TWU’s chapel program and loves exploring worship and the arts. When he is not at TWU you will likely find him dancing or playing catch with Anthony, watching reruns of Star Trek, or making delicious gluten-free food.