For over 30 years now, I have put ashes on the foreheads of elderly people, middle-aged people, young adults, youth, and even infants in their mothers’ arms, saying to each one, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When I put the ashes on babies, what are their mothers and fathers seeing and feeling? When I mark the foreheads of the elderly, what are their spouses, children, and grandchildren experiencing? With each thumb-imprinted cross on the forehead, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” something is awakened in me and, I’m sure, in them.
I wonder if I might as well use a familiar blessing with each smudge of ashes, “Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who are traveling the journey with us. So, be swift to love, and make haste to be kind.”
I have also blessed, baptized, and anointed babies in Neonatal Intensive Care just before they died. I’ve done the same for elderly people in the hospital, as well as young adults and middle-aged folks, after an illness or accident, just before life supports were removed. And all the while, the parents of the babies and loved ones of the elderly and the young, all stood around the one being anointed, holding each other, with love so intense that it could only be expressed in tears and a final embrace. It produces an ache, a longing, and a resolve to use every last second and every fiber of one’s being to express what is bursting from one’s heart.
“Death is the mother of beauty,” a famous poet once said. But I wonder if death is really just the revealer of beauty. The revealer of a beauty and love that have been with us all along, just hidden beneath our daily worries, distractions, and busyness, so that we don’t have time to notice the most powerful thing within us. But when we see the ashes, when we hear the word “remember,” maybe the most important truth, the Presence, our soul, wells up and causes us to hold each other, and if we speak, we say only what is necessary: I love you…Thank you…You mean everything to me.
Maybe Ash Wednesday is intended to be the revealer of this hidden but ever-present beauty and love that is always within each of us, just hidden or covered up much of the time. Maybe the smudge of ashes reveals the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the Presence that can suddenly produce that ache, that longing, and the resolve to devote ourselves to the one thing that matters most, to express our gratitude for this world, our love for the people who are traveling the journey with us, and our awe and wonder for this one wonderful, jaw-dropping, precious life we have together.