Today is Ash Wednesday, and I’ve had ashes smudged in a cross shape on my forehead as I heard the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the gospel.” Somehow I don’t know quite how to respond to that; something within me wants to say, “Amen.” I usually wind up nodding solemnly at the person who’s imposing the ashes on my forehead.
I grew up in a faith tradition that did not observe Lent. Instead, we emphasized Holy Week and the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. In recent years the church I used to attend has held an Ash Wednesday service as a time of reflection. The closest we got to the cross-shaped smudge was receiving strips of burlap cloth to remind us of repentance.
Now I am a Methodist, and we love rituals. There’s something beautiful, comforting, and challenging to me about the rituals in our worship services, whether it’s saying the congregation’s vow at baptism, speaking the Nicene creed in unison, passing the peace, praying the Lord’s Prayer, responding with “And also with you” whenever a worship leader says “May the Lord be with you” or saying a resounding “Thanks be to God” after someone proclaims, “This is the word of God for the people of God,” or holding out hands to receive Communion after we participate in the familiar liturgy. These rituals remind me of what being a Christian is all about. They connect me with Christians from centuries ago and with Christians around the world; most of all they remind me of the many things all believers have in common.
Today I am remembering an Ash Wednesday several years ago when my dad was in the hospital for a quadruple bypass. That particular day I was feeling exhausted from being at the hospital, and I was downhearted. I found myself wanting to attend an Ash Wednesday service and have ashes smudged on my forehead. I’d already been reminded of my own mortality that week and was more than a little frightened about whether my dad would recover from his surgery. (He was 80 at the time. He’s still alive and kicking at age 88.) I needed to be with other Christians, say the words that remind me of what I believe, and feel the assurance of God’s presence.
Now that I think about it, that is the purpose of rituals: these repetitive actions and words remind us of what we believe. They comfort us and reassure us that God is indeed present where two or three are gathered together. They are important links to our history and markers toward our future. Perhaps most important, they remind us that everything we do together is a sacred action–and that we are all connected in this journey called life.