When I was on internship in Easton PA, I spent one afternoon a week in the Northampton County Department of Corrections. My supervisor and I mostly functioned as teachers. We would teach classes like “Intro to World Religions,” “How to Balance a Checkbook,” and “Fatherhood 101.”
Most of the classes weren’t religious in nature, but there were certainly elements of faith that crept into our classroom – even though we knew some people in our classes weren’t Christian. I think that’s what made the classes so engaging. There was intentional community in a place where folks usually kept to themselves. To the inmates, we brought a breath of fresh air: insights from outside the concrete box.
There was one week when I spent two afternoons in the Northampton County Department of Corrections. My supervisor and I went to each block in the jail and imposed ashes on the foreheads of 200-or-so inmates.
Block after block, the CO escorting me would call in on the radio and give a hand signal to the security camera. A few seconds later the doors would unlock and I would enter. All those who wanted that ashen cross upon their brow would stand in a line at the door; usually the COs on that block would be first in line.
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Orange jumpsuit after orange jumpsuit, black corrections uniform after black corrections uniform, khaki jumpsuit after khaki jumpsuit. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
But block after block, I was becoming more and more intrigued. So many of the people in my half of that 200-or-so foreheads weren’t Christian. There were Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics – and probably others – so many people lined up for that ashen cross upon their brow.
As we returned to the Northampton County Department of Corrections after that Ash Wednesday, I asked some of our students about this experience. Now, we had already talked about what forgiveness means when you’re incarcerated, and we had already discussed turning your life over to a higher power. But why did so many people want that ashen cross upon their brow – a visible reminder that we are but dust and will soon die – especially when they weren’t Christian?
One of our star students answered that question for me so precisely. “It’s a reminder that we’re human. We need that reminder in here.”
So much of their time in jail is out of their control. You wake up and eat when you’re told; you shower and make your bed when you’re told. It was easy for them to lose track of the one thing we take for granted – not our freedom, but our humanity.
The guys in that concrete box taught me a lot about life that year, but perhaps the most important learning occurred on that Ash Wednesday.
I think that’s why this day is still so important to me. It’s not about the vestments transitioning to purple, it’s not about the journey down from the mountain and up to the cross. It’s simply the reminder that I need to hear at least once a year. “I’m human. I’m made of dust. And I will die.”
But that simple, ominous reminder is also a grace-filled promise. “You’re human. You’re made of dust. And you will live!”
Considering the ashen cross upon your brow, Jesus’ words today seem ironic. “Beware of practicing your piety before others… give alms in secret … pray behind closed doors.” That’s not so easy when you’re announcing to the world that you are human, you’re made of dust, and you will die – never mind the fact that you’re a good Christian who goes to church in the middle of the week!
No, I think what’s behind these seemingly ironic words is intention. Don’t come to church to tell others about it, but come to church to be in communion with the body of Christ. Don’t give to the poor to be praised, but give to the poor because they’re poor. Don’t fast as if it’s a competition, but fast to refocus on God’s presence in your life. And perhaps most importantly, don’t let the desire for earthly goods distract you from the kingdom of heaven.
Just as it was for those 200-or-so foreheads, the purpose of Ash Wednesday isn’t to remind you of death, but to remind you of the promise of new life. The journey of Lent isn’t about giving up chocolate, or going to the gym more often – although I’m not judging you if that’s your plan!
Rather, the journey of Lent is a reminder that you are fully human. It’s a reminder that you will fall short of the glory of God; and yet it’s a reminder that nothing can separate you from God’s grace.
As we begin this Lent together, I charge you to spend time in prayer and discernment. Look for God in the unusual places in your life, and find God in the unusual people in your life. But above all, throughout this journey in the wilderness, remember this: “You’re human. You’re made of dust. And you will live.”