In church there is a constant tension of preparing for the inevitable in life and a weekly rehearsal of creating a world as we hope it will one day become. Wednesday night I administered ashes in chapel. It is one of my favorite services. We offer a mix of ash and olive oil in the shape of a cross on the hand near the wrist or on the forehead. The people are instructed to look the ministers administering the ashes in the eye and to remain silent. We speak the words "From dust you have come, to dust you shall return." This fact of our mortality does not require a thank you. The ritual is not about the personal relationship between the congregant and the minister. It is about our relationship to our own death. The minister merely reminds us in ritual to take stock. There are so many times in our lives that force us to take stock of why we are here and how we are spending our time. These moments are often out of our control: a diagnosis, a death, the loss of a job, being the victim of a crime. The world feels as though it is divided into two: before and after. There are moments where we have chosen a path that takes us in a new direction that are marked similarly. There was the way my life was before this choice and the way it is now. Rituals help us mark these times with significance. Ash Wednesday helps us prepare for these times with intention.
The view on Ash Wednesday from the chancel offers a different marker that is more personal. I gaze into the eyes of the living not knowing which or if any of those to whom I am offering ashes, I will bury this year. I am also reminded of those who I marked last year who are no longer on this earth. Wearing the collar, much like wearing the robe reminds me of this cycle of life and death. It reminds me of those to whom I have ministered, of those whom I have memorialized and whose stories I carry with me.