One of my favorite evenings as a pastor was the night of Ash Wednesday worship. It was always a quieter service, a smaller crowd, a gentler pace. No swarms of people trying to hang up coats and tripping over kids. No last minute announcements that needed to be made. No band going over chords at the last minute. A soft prelude. A set liturgy. A short meditation. And ashes.
It was my job to dip my thumb in the small dish of ash and smear the sign of the cross on the forehead of my congregants. "Remember that you are dust," I would say, "and to dust you shall return." Some years I would say, "Repent, and believe the gospel." Sometimes, "You belong to Jesus Christ." But always, the ashes. And always, a name first: "Jim, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Marsha, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Hannah, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." Just about everybody who came to those services was a member, a congregant, a parishioner, a friend. I knew their names. And I marked them with a sign of the cross.
When that part of the service was over, we would sing a hymn and I would look out over my people. Each would be marked with the cross, and to each, that cross was invisible. Some would go out for dinner after the service and forget the cross until their server asked about it. Some would go to local sporting events with the smudge still on their foreheads. Even I would forget about my cross until I caught my reflection in a mirror.
I think that is a good picture of how much of our Christian life plays out--we forget the dirt of our sin until someone else points it out. We forget that we are marked with the cross until something else reminds us. Our spiritual memories are like sieves. We forget all the time--the sin, the grace, the sacrifice. We forget.
Thankfully God remembers. He remembers that we are dust.And thankfully God forgets. He forgets that we ever sinned.
8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. 9 He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; 10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. 13 As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; 14 for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103)
Blessed be his holy name.