They said “Thank you.”
Over and over again. The vast majority of people. “Thank you.”
It wasn’t their usual procession before me, and not my usual gift to them. Usually when they come before me I hold out to them the bread and cup as I say “the bread of life and cup of blessing.” Sometimes that gets me a “thank you,” mumbled as an afterthought through a mouth trying to mind its manners. Sometimes I hear a soft “Amen” as they dip the bread into the blessing with agreement.
But today is Ash Wednesday. Today my first offering to them was not life and blessing but ashes and solemn reminders. “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” I don’t always say these words on Ash Wednesday. Some years I tell people, “From God you have come and to God you will return.” Other times I have said, “Remember that you are human.” But this year I was compelled to use the more traditional words because of a blog someone wrote about needing to hear them. Her mother received a terminal diagnosis last year, just days after receiving the ashes of Lent, and she died six weeks later. The author wrote about how she is preparing to attend another Ash Wednesday service this year, waiting to hear the words of mortality. She wrote:
“I hope the minister won’t get all progressive about it, change up the old words to soften the blow, tamper with the truth and use flowers instead of ashes, or some such thing. It will ring really false to me after last year when things suddenly got real. I might get visibly pissed, and that would mess up the contemplative atmosphere. Just give me my burnt cross of ashes and let me cling to it grieving for a while.”(Read her blog here.)
So even though I don’t know her, I did as she requested, in honor of all those for whom things have suddenly gotten real. From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. I said it to each person who showed up at noon on a weekday, the youngest of whom was probably fifty, all of us closer to the end than the beginning. From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.
I said it to them all. The lapsed Catholic. The man going through chemo. The man whose wife is. The woman who comes to our building for other meetings but not for worship. And most of them said, “Thank you.” Perhaps they were being polite. Perhaps the intimate touching of my finger to their foreheads, my attempt to look them in the eye, made them feel it required a response. Of course, earlier I had told them that they were dust and stardust, made of the stuff of galaxies. I reminded them of what miracles God can do with dust. But then I said those words. I reminded them that they are mortal, reminded them that they will not get out of this alive. And they said, “Thank you.”
I made the mark on my own forehead and repeated the words: From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. And then I echoed my parishioners, my teachers, as I whispered, “Thank you.”
I got so distracted pondering my response that I forgot the next hymn. But I will try again in my evening service. To speak truth. To look people I love in the eye and remind them that they will not live on this earth forever. And to say “thank you” for the reminder.