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“Humans, at their best, are some odd mixture of dust and divinity … some strange assemblage of treasure and trash … in all of us there is a healthy smattering of gold and garbage.”

—Cleophus LaRue

I was reared as far from the Church as one can imagine. No Easter, Christmas, or Mother’s Day services for me, so this business about ashes seemed strange and at first a bit silly to me upon surrendering to Jesus at age 20.

Ash Wednesday kick starts Lent, a 40-day season of fasting, service, and prayer. During this day’s special worship service, the sign of the cross is traced onto the forehead of attendees, as they’re offered a sobering blessing: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Truer words have not been spoken.

This experience is altogether different than greeting people in the narthex or lobby on Sundays. On Ash Wednesday, the pleasantries have waved bye-bye. Pomp-and-circumstance is on vacation. Vicious rancor over the color of the carpet and brand of coffee fade, thank God.

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

As a pastor, I love the church most on Ash Wednesday. We cease-and-desist foolishness and confront the brass tacks. All are in decay, within the framework of a guaranteed end and uncertain timetable.

This is reinforced, of course, by a forehead smeared with real live (or dead, to be exact) ashes, made from palm branches burned down from the previous year’s Palm Sunday processional and mixed with oil. They may help with exfoliation, but they serve best as a meditative apologetic.

Those ashes are a reminder of where we’re all headed. In my life, May 2, 1992 exists in infamy because it is when my childhood best friend, Joseph A. Ford, was gunned-down at the age of 13, an innocent crossfire victim riding home from church in his mother’s Mercury Cougar. In 2018, two giant mentors of mine made their trip “up yonder,” Rev. Dr. James Earl Massey at 88 and Jean Young at 86. In January, I traveled to Springfield, Illinois, for the funeral of a 23-year-old recent Hope College graduate, scheduled to be married in less than six months, who died from a head-on snowmobiling accident in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The biblical writer James was onto something when the Holy Spirit had him write, “Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).

"Those ashes are a reminder of where we’re all headed."

I am easily lulled to sleep by the smooth elevator music of idealistic complacency, resulting in far more monologues with God than dialogues. Do you know what I mean? We subtly buy into treating him like a divine benefactor for our suspect stewardship of this or that, time, money, and—worst of all—people, not to mention our very selves. Vying for stardom of some kind, God is viewed as a dutiful production manager on the hurried assembly line of your life and mine.

So captivated by hashtags and price tags, we forget that a toe tag awaits us all. Neither the just nor unjust can opt-out of breathing one last breath.

And yet, according to Jesus, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). Jesus is our hope—so Lent, marked by Ash Wednesday, isn’t about hocus-pocus or rigidity. Its intention is to call to remembrance our unique ordinariness, both our utility and futility as surrendered to the Spirit’s providential gusts.

"So captivated by hashtags and price tags, we forget that a toe tag awaits us all. Neither the just nor unjust can opt-out of breathing one last breath."

“That ashen mark is an ancient sign of humility and morality,” writes Seth Dietrich in the Journal for Preachers. “But that ashen mark is also a bold proclamation that the cross of Jesus Christ is the only true antidote to the poison in us and in our world.”

For those who trust Christ’s blood-bought sacrifice as their lawyer in eternity’s courtroom, they shall one day rise again. Our bodies being lowered into some patch of earth is merely another transition, only to be outdone to the day we receive a not-guilty verdict and join the heavenly mass choir, to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Revelation 4:8).

Ash Wednesday is a time to return to the basics, affirming that beautiful mystery of our unique ordinariness before a God who suffered that we might suffer no more.

About the author

James Ellis III

James Ellis III serves as a chaplain of discipleship at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. An ordained Baptist clergyman, he also edited the book Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil: Stories about the Challenges of Young Pastors, a collection of 21 essays from young pastors sharing raw accounts of how tough vocational ministry is. When not shepherding two-legged sheep, James takes swimming lessons, does pull-ups, practices being a contented introvert, and spends as much time as possible with his wife.