That was the question posed of me by our Priest Associate, and I have to confess I had to ponder her question a while before thinking.
This year, since I was also acolyte and chalice bearer for our Ash Wednesday service, she also asked me to help impose ashes. As I thought about it, I realized the answer to her question is actually a three part answer, and it actually starts a day or so before Ash Wednesday. As with anything I ever do in serving at church in any capacity, thoughts about my role, whether it is serving as acolyte, lector, leader or Prayers of the People, has a "mechanical" component, a "projecting liturgically" component, and a "spiritual" component.
Any new task I am asked to do, inside or outside of church, you can bet that I think three-dimensionally about the actual physical task itself, and am very self-conscious that I do it smoothly and imperceptibly. At first, in preparation for the day, I thought about things like, "How much do I need to put on my thumb? How hard do I press? How big do I make the little crosses?"
I thought to myself, "I need practice doing this." So I practiced on the most available victims--my dogs. Boomer was very cooperative, and was very good at displaying the look of a penitent. Little Eddie, on the other hand, was fairly annoyed with the process. But at least it warmed me up to the possibility that the worst thing that could happen--jumping off the altar and rubbing one's head on the floor to rub the ashes off--probably wasn't going to happen.
Once freed from my obsessions and compulsions about "the mechanics," I could move on to the more serious stuff. In the Episcopal Church, anyone can impose ashes. It's not a job consigned solely to the ordained. But it IS a job that recognizes "the priesthood of all believers." I thought for a while about what the liturgy is trying to say to us. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. The first day of a 40 day preparation for 50 days of resurrection. A day to be most mindful of all the things that stand in our way of our own resurrections.
One day a year, the ashes become an outward and visible sign of the smudges on our own souls--the things we walk around and hide and hope no one sees. I thought about how there is a certain amount of discomfort with being out in public with a black, cross-shaped smudge on one's forehead. I thought about how everyone thinks a little differently about this, and the different ways people think about it. Some folks don't even go to Ash Wednesday services. I've heard people tell me, "I'm not going to go to church to have someone remind me I'm sinful." That's their right; I'm okay with that. Some folks wipe them off right after getting out of church because they simply don't want dirt on their face in public. That's okay too. Some folks have been taught not to wear them out in public because it is a little like being a Pharisee--showing your piety in public. There's some truth to that, and I can understand that. Some wear them the rest of the day, and the most common reason I've heard is, "Well, it's a tradition of the Church, and I'm not ashamed of it, so I just wear it." My own personal behavior is probably a variant of that one.
I do tend to wear my smudge. Oh, a couple of times I've removed it when I had to be in a public venue where I don't think it's proper to mix church and state. But mostly I wear mine. My thought process is to remind myself that every day of my life, I walk around with those invisible smudges on my soul anyway, and wearing one on my forehead makes me consider a new possibility--"Would I behave differently if I knew everyone could see my "smudges"? What are those things I'd rather not have people see? What ought I change about those things?"
The other thing I thought about was "What is the message I am conveying by being one of the "appliers" of the ashes?" Part of me said, "It's not my place to do it. It feels weird to be a lay person doing it. People associate it with a priestly thing. I'm not very priestly. It feels a little bit like I am telling others, "Here's what I've got to say to you about YOUR sins. So there." I have no right to tell people that."
But then I realized that, because our church does not make this a "priests only" sort of thing, this is about that business of "the priesthood of all believers." I am going to get them put on me same as I will be putting them on others. I have always allowed someone to impose ashes on me. It's no different than allowing the sins of others to impose upon me. All of humankind shares a commonality with sin, and it is, in a lot of ways like ashes--it's messy and we get it all over things we never intended to put it." I thought about how during "the mud season" in the country, I often track mud in places I never intended, show up to work with mud on my pants that I have no clue how it got there, or look at my own hand and think, "Where in the world did I stick my hand in mud? I don't remember."
But prior to the service, I felt a bit of self-conscious discomfort about this "Who am I to do this, who am I to send an unspoken message from God about the sins of others, when my sins are ever before ME?" But just as the liturgy sometimes creates spots of discomfort in me, it also took it away. At the point just prior to the prayer where the celebrant blesses the ashes, our priest associate and I had worked out what she wanted for the mechanics. I was to hold the two pyxes out in my palm, and she would put her hand over them and say the prayer.
Then something happened that caught me off guard. In my mind, I had expected her to hover her hand over them, much as how she hovers her hands over the bread and wine in the epiclesis. But she didn't. She PLACED her hand on the tops of the two pyxes and her fingers were brushing my palm. My mind is so prone to flashing instant messages when the Holy Spirit hits me in the head with the "holy 2x4," and this time was no exception. In big black letters, the whiteboard of my brain saw the message:
"This is not about the human hands that do this; this is about the ashes being the center of what is surrounded by human flesh, with no boundaries between priests and parishioners, and God speaks to us with whatever hands happen to be in the way."
Suddenly, I felt okay with the process. It totally switched my mode from one of "self-consciousness" to being just another unique piece in that grand and mysterious puzzle that is "The Liturgy."
I became aware of two things. One was that I consciously put my hand on each person's forehead to pull back their hair a little bit to apply the ashes with my thumb. I thought about how, when I'm sick, it's always so comforting for someone to simply feel my forehead to see if I have a fever. That simple little form of physical touch acknowledges my weakness, and shows love and care. In my mind, God cradles our heads in our hands, even when we are soul-sick. I realized I wanted others to feel "cradled," not "punished."
The other thing I became conscious of was to start the line "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," independent of when our priest associate started it. I didn't want to "ride her coattails." I didn't want there to be this "dual voice." I wanted it to become a single voice of all humanity, like singing a round or doing a monastic chant. It seemed right to me that the continuous sound of that line could become in itself a prayer of contemplation, and to keep it going like a round created "prayer space," so people didn't hear the words as spoken, but could go BEHIND the words and find God in their own spaces. I realized my own love of "creating" wanted to give room for others to create things in themselves, and I would just ride the wave and enjoy the view.
So the answer to her question was not what I expected. I wasn't "on the other side" of the ashes. I was in the middle of them.