I am the minister.
And yet also a sinner, believer, servant, husband, son, Jesus-follower, holy wonderer and wanderer, and God-lover.
I am cold.
I am alone.
It is Ash Wednesday.
As the preacher serving a congregation—which has included churches in Wisconsin’s dairy lands, along with urban and rural zip codes of California—I would head for the sanctuary before dawn to prepare the elements. Some would be for a traditional communion, though on Ash Wednesday, I usually chose the dry, brittle matzah bread rather than a freshly baked loaf. Other items were less familiar, an annual nod to Ash Wednesday’s peculiarities. There was literal ash, burned down from the prior Christmas’ pine boughs. Oil. And words. Always words. Always something on a page to read, something ready to say.
I would be the celebrant.
As sinner and servant, I welcomed others into this spare, awkward slice of the liturgical calendar. It’s a gray day of penitence, a mid-week confession that we are but dirt and ash, mortals crafted from mud; we are forever in need of, and forever ignoring, God’s immortal love and forgiveness.
Thus, Lent would begin.
In the gloomy sanctuary, when I was young (and later not-so-young), I would be alone for those cold minutes before any first worshipper might arrive. Though there may be other services on this day that jump-started Lent, maybe at noon, maybe in the early evening, I usually made sure one happened near the proverbial crack of dawn. I wanted to offer my congregations a start-of-the-day chance to begin the Lenten journey. Come before work. Come before school. Come before the day’s demands sweep you into obligations. Come in darkness to risk the light.
It would an early, early morning in February or March. Capricious Easter, always flirting with the calendar, meant the first Lenten steps were bound to not just waiting, but to winter. To chilly temperatures. To nights still longer than days.
Ready with the ash. Ready with the grape. Ready with the flimsy cracker. Ready with the words.
One thing, over those years of ministry, I always wondered: what if no one came? This wasn’t Christmas Eve, after all. Ash Wednesday is a chump. It’s the “celebration” at the end of the bench, the player that rarely gets to play. It’s not the fanfare of Easter; the grim truth of Good Friday; the cultural, interfaith festival of Thanksgiving.
No. This is a day that nods to death. To how humans are not just mortal, but weak. Frail. Fickle. From dust you came, the ancient words claim, and to dust you will return. No wonder the sanctuary was never crowded!
Would I be alone?
Always, in those times, I vowed that if I were the only one present, I’d still mutter the words, read the irksome verses, smear ashes on my forehead, and then eat the brittle bread.
How alone we all feel sometimes. We turn on the television—or nowadays a host of other electronic devices—to make sure there is background noise. Even the most introverted of us want some clatter and hubbub. We may not speak a word, but we daily move through a raucous world with its pesky demands to be productive, keep the kitchen free of bacteria, wear the right clothes, drive the newest car. We need to keep the kids busy and the boss happy. Pay the rent or mortgage. Mow the lawn.
This is what I believed when I waited for the first person’s appearance: everyone needs reminders both of our mortality and that we are not alone. If no one did appear for this early morning “celebration” of our human weakness, I would boldly voice words used by all those who had gone before me. I would still the spread oil-saturated ashes knowing I was using gestures echoing ancient priests. Ash Wednesday always includes an invisible community of saints (and sinners), doesn’t it? How can we not cast forth these words and actions without recalling we are part of something older and greater than just this mere here-and-now moment?
Then, a person would arrive.
And I, who in certain ways always feel alone, am not alone.
A few more usually straggled into the sanctuary. They will soon continue to work, to school, to all those places where we try to make a difference or try not to be noticed, or just simply try to get by. With this holy, hurting handful, I will dish out words and the burned remnants of wood. We will break bread. We will, fools all, begin the day.
It is barely light when we leave.
The day of ashes, with its mortal, magnificent reminders, sends us forth.