Ten years ago around this time the boy I liked asked me to go to his church’s Ash Wednesday service. I said yes, of course, because I liked the boy. I wore ripped jeans and a light blue t-shirt that said “do everything in love” in bold type, and a ratty pink zip-up hoodie.
I had something written on the back of my hand in sharpie — I don’t remember what, but the habit of writing on myself stuck through college. I was both a goodie-two-shoes and a wild-child, desperate to graduate high school and go on adventures, and still scared to leave my childhood home. I was smitten with the simple teachings of Shane Claiborne, with Brother Lawrence and Thomas á Kempis. I was falling in love with Jesus the way you fall in love with anyone — without knowing much about them at all. And it was in the heat of this high school melodrama that I walked up the steps of the balcony and sat down for that evening’s service.
I regret to say I don’t remember the sermon. I do remember walking down the balcony steps, though, and standing in front of a pastor who smoothed ashes across my forehead, telling me that from dust I came, to dust I would return, repent of my sins, be faithful to the gospel. I am still grasping the power of those words, but in that moment I felt it. I felt a shift. Something resettled in my soul, something telling me that this was good news: my need to repent, my coming from dust, my eventually going back to the earth. It all felt new. I had heard it all my life, but it felt gritty, now, and pure — like the feeling of diving into a lake after a long day at summer camp. The boy who invited me to church that night wouldn’t be in my life much longer, but this gospel, I knew, would last forever.
Five years later, I would be interviewing for a job at that church. A few years after that, I would spend an evening dipping two fingers into a bowl of ashes, dusting them onto my congregant’s foreheads, speaking those same words that had been spoken over me: from dust you came, to dust you will return, repent of your sins, be faithful to the gospel. It is still my favorite service. More than Christmas Eve, more than Easter morning, the beauty of Jesus has always gripped me most on Ash Wednesday. It feels tangible, the dust of the ashes leaving flecks across my face, the repetition of the words that speak life into weary hearts: you can still turn. The gospel is still for you. You aren’t God. You are dust. All that is needed of you is to be faithful to the one who called you. Dust, repent, gospel. Dust, repent, grace.
It’s been ten years, now, since I first truly began to follow Jesus. At the time it felt like I made the choice to participate. But looking back, I think the current of grace was too strong, and I got knocked off my feet. I had the choice to back out — to say no to the whole, grand adventure that would unfold when I said yes — but Ash Wednesday ruined me of saying no. After an encounter like that, a tangible encounter with your own dust and with God’s own mercy, what is there to do but to jump in? It will take me my whole life to understand it, and all of eternity, too, but this Wednesday will remind me again: Dust, repent, gospel. Dust, repent, grace.