This is how Sara Miles, author of City of God, describes Ash Wednesday.
This service… reminded me not to over-spiritualize the problem of mortality. Ash Wednesday was calling me back to worship God with my whole body — lungs, thumb, knees, eyes, tongue — and to admit that body’s inevitable failure. And it reminded me that I was no different in my flesh from any other human being. – City of God
It didn’t occur to me until last night how physical Ash Wednesday is. There’s touching involved, it’s dirty, and it all starts with a smelly, smoky fire. It’s a tangible experience, not just a spiritual or emotional one.
To dust we shall return.
Furthermore, Sara adds, it’s entirely born from within the church. Ash Wednesday isn’t a holiday we pull from a Bible story. Jesus didn’t spread ashes on anyone’s forehead. Rather, it’s an event we created for ourselves to corporately realize our sin, to acknowledge our own mortality, and begin the rebirthing process of repentance together. It’s the starting line we cross together on our 40-day journey.
While working on St. Gregory’s liturgy for Ash Wednesday, Paul and I argued a bit about the challenges of collective confession. “Doesn’t it kind of let me off the hook,” I protested, “to say we have wasted your creation, blah, blah, we have been snide, blah, blah, we have failed at whatever? Shouldn’t I have to consider my own actual sins and look at exactly what it is I’ve personally done and am ready to repent of?”
“Ah,” said Paul. “That would be the sin of pride, thinking that your wickedness is so different from others’.”
Ash Wednesday allows us to look at one another in mutual sorrow and reflection. We’ve all done everything, just in different ways. My selfishness might look different than your selfishness, but it’s selfishness nonetheless.
So come on. Let’s get dirty on this journey together. Let’s get uncomfortable. Let’s brood a bit and see where the road takes us.