This past Ash Wednesday was the third time that I’ve had the chance as a pastor to impose ashes onto the foreheads of believers who desired their first steps into the season of Lent to be steps of repentance and preparation. When I was in their shoes, I remember standing in line and wondering why I was doing this, and not even really being clear on why it was being done to me. It seemed sacred and important. I couldn’t explain it if someone asked, but I felt that I was a part of something significant when it was being done. Even looking around afterward and seeing all the dirty finger smudges across so many foreheads felt sacred in some way.
Now that I’m standing with the bowl and the dirty finger making the smudges, I don’t know if I have a better explanation. Look around and see. We’re part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re part of a story that goes back to disciples and apostles who are now dust, and there will be others who receive smudges on their foreheads long after we ourselves are dust. We are dust and to dust we shall return. Repent and believe.
I had the pleasure of taking some ashes to a home bound member before the service in the evening and impose ashes upon her forehead. As I ground the dry dark ash between my thumb and index finger, I managed to create a dark enough layer that served to impose the sign of the cross beautifully across her forehead. It remained stained to my fingers as I packed up my kit and I was careful not to touch anything as I left her perfectly clean home. Between the drive from her home to the office, I forgot that my fingers were covered in dark ash and I began to leave dark fingerprints like a trail of breadcrumbs across doorknobs, walls, light switches, and sheets of paper as I went. And it wasn’t until I was reviewing my bulletin for the evening that I realized I was leaving fingerprints on whatever I touched.
My first inclination was to brush them off, wipe them away, and clean what I had marked. But as I sat staring at that sheet of smudged and dirty paper, I realized how it was almost as if some invisible detective had stumbled across my soul and with his fingerprint brush and fine powder, brought into focus and reality the fingerprints of God which are daily impressed from and rubbed off onto others through my day. God’s fingerprints would be dirty. They would be inconvenient. They would cause us to want to wipe them away. They are marks of a life well lived, a life that knows what it means to be separated in the mud from God and for God to reach down in the dirt to breathe into us and speak to us yet again. These were marks that reminded me that I had shared a sacred moment with someone today and neither one of us could be the same anymore. We rubbed off on each other and carried marks that would rub off onto the rest of the world saying, we are new creations and we have the dirty fingerprints to prove it.