Every year on Ash Wednesday, I am surprised by the number of people in the pews whom I don’t recognize. Sometimes as much as half of the congregation are unfamiliar to me. That’s a big switch from Sundays. Who are all these people and what pulls them to church on this day? Ash Wednesday is absent the big festive celebrations of Christmas and Easter, another time we see lots of strangers. In fact, Ash Wednesday is a kind of anti-celebration. We have ashes pressed into our foreheads in the shape of a cross, to dedicate ourselves to a Holy Lent. We commit ourselves to a time of repentance and reflection, a time of simplifying and preparation for Holy Week and Easter, a time to make more room in our lives for God. I have often wondered, what is it that draws people to Ash Wednesday services and to the Ashes-to-Go stations (see Rev. Heather’s blog from last week) that are growing every year?  A clergy colleague of mine shared an Ash Wednesday experience that helps me answer this question.

In between his multiple services, he went to visit a parishioner in the hospital and took a small pot of ashes with him.  She had never missed an Ash Wednesday service in her whole life so it was a great joy for her to feel like she didn’t miss out this year either. But my friend, the priest, said that as he moved through the hospital halls, carrying his pot of ashes, he felt as if he was carrying the presence of Christ with him. He wandered past doctors who were trying to explain complicated diagnoses and treatment plans to concerned family members. He wandered past harried nurses and orderlies. He passed by quiet rooms and rooms that had the hustle and bustle of emergency. All the while the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” were ringing in his head. Ashes symbolize death. I was struck by the irony of his bringing the symbol of death into the hospital.

The objective of our vast medical-industrial complex is to deny death. And if not to deny it, than to stave it off until the last possible minute. But the whole point of smudging ashes on our foreheads is to remind us of our own death. And thinking about our own death is clarifying, especially in the middle of our busy lives. When we think about our own death, there is an unavoidable reckoning. Suddenly, what’s really important rises above the noise and distraction that constitute much of our everyday lives. And there is something refreshingly real about that. Maybe that’s why people come to church on Ash Wednesday. They are craving the real. My friend the priest wasn’t offering false hope. His presence and pot of ashes were saying we don’t get eternal life without death. He was bringing the presence of Christ with him, and that means death comes before resurrection.

What might you need to get real about in this season of Lent?