I always enjoy leading in worship. In worship leadership, one speaks on behalf of the congregation, articulating the thanksgivings, requests, confessions, hopes, and convictions of the worshippers. One also shares the Word of God with the congregation, expressing words of forgiveness, hope, challenge, comfort, and guidance. There is power in the corporate experience of worship.
There is also great power in personalized, individualized moments in worship. Some of my most moving moments in worship leadership are when the service narrows its focus down to a solitary individual. When people come forward to take communion, one of these moments is created. I look into the person’s eyes, perhaps calling them by name, and say: “This is the body of Christ broken for You” or “This is the cup of Christ poured out for You.” In that moment the weight of those words come to bear directly on a single person; the rest of the world falls away, and they stand robed in the mercy and grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Another one of those moments can come on Ash Wednesday. The worshipper leader physically touches the worshipper, making the mark of the cross on their forehead, and says: “From dust You have come and to dust You shall return.” These words should be experienced as depressing, discouraging, and diminishing; but they are not. We experience them as liberating and encouraging; they in some way lighten the load of our lives. Why?
They remind us that life in this world is not the only thing. It is fleeting and fragile; but that is all right with us. We were created for something grander, more lasting, deeper and broader. This reminder gives us permission to hold our lives and ourselves more lightly. G. K. Chesterton wrote: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Those ashes give us permission to fly a bit.
The ashes come to us in the shape of a cross. This reminds us that someone has done something wonderful for us. It is true that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return, but we are a great deal more than dust. Through the cross we have become the daughters and sons of God. The cruciform ashes remind us of who we really are in spite of present dusty appearance.
So we begin our 40 days of preparation for Holy Week and Easter with a reminder of what we are—dust. We are also reminded of who we are—a great deal more than dust.
Ash Wednesday 2013