Even as a Christo-Druid (or Druidic/Celtic-Christian) I admit it sounds bizarre, but letting someone smear ashes on your forehead while telling you that you are dirt is a good experience. And, though it isn’t as obvious, it is also a declaration of stupendous importance and of great news.
‘Technology and industry have distanced people from nature and magic and human values’. Laura Esquivel
There was a time when I would do it religiously. Yes, at school when I was a wee lad, at the time of Ash Wednesday, we would all have to line up, then kneel at the front of the church in groups of about twenty. The priest would walk about in all his robes, dipping his thumb into a plate of ashes and mark a cross on our foreheads. Our only thought was: let me be the third one, please.
That was then.
They were great days at school – although with hindsight it did so very much resemble Hogwarts!. To save time at those Ash Wednesday services and to save ash the priest dipped his thumb into the plate of ashes every third student, but it also meant that the third student would, fortunately for him/her, only get a few ashes, hardly visible on the forehead.
The student who was number one each time the priest’s thumb was dipped into the ashes, unfortunately from his/her viewpoint, would receive a huge dollop of black ash on the forehead, so much so that some of it would usually fall onto the cheek or nose. Wiping it off during the day – even with studies in the afternoon – was frowned upon.
‘There is a comfort in rituals, and rituals provide a framework for stability when you are trying to find answers’. Deborah Norville
Oh, when I left school I dismissed the ‘religious’ stuff as something that meant little to me. And, because of that I had little to do with the ritual behind it. It meant little to many of the teachers at school, too, and that thought ‘rubbed off’ on to me any many students.
That was then; this is now.
Fast-forward a number of years and now having attended a number of Ash Wednesday services, and led them, they mean something more, something much more. I’m never an advocate of blind or shallow ritual. But,…..?
But, what about meaningful ritual? What about ritual that touches the very core of your being? What about ritual that is deeply moving and seemingly opens us up to sacred-time, and ushers us into a ‘thin place’? What about ritual that is physical-metaphor or intentionality that ushers us into the imaginal realm of the Other, a place of peace, power, potential? Yes, now that is altogether very different to what I experienced at school.
What sparked this trip down memory lane?
Well, next Wednesday, 6 March 2019 is Ash Wednesday and many people will be receiving those ashes on their forehead. Ofcourse, some will receive them unthinkingly, some will ensure they don’t take them for a variety of reasons (and I do support those people, too, but would ask them to periodically ‘review’ their position as should we all, myself included); and some will receive those ashes on their forehead and for them it will be a deep and meaningful experience that is a liminal, threshold experience, a glimpse of the Other. And, that is the point of this article.
‘The only way we’ll know where we’re going is to look at the past and to remember who we were through ceremonies and rituals’. Laura Esquivel
And, so next Wednesday, a few of us will be in a busy London city street, and for those unable to get to a church service, we’re bringing to them the ability to be blessed in the street, to receive ashes on their forehead too, as I, and the few others administering the ashes will also say to them: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ In this sense it can apply to all, and that street blessing and ash-application wont be exclusively Christian, but will be open and available to all those who want a blessing and experience that ritual (perhaps for the first time).
It sounds like a negative but for those willing stop for a few minutes I would share that is extremely positive: it means we’re here in this form for a limited time and we’re encouraged to make good use of the time; we’ve come from dust, even star dust, we’re part of nature, and to that state of dust we’ll return; we’ve come from somewhere which some call heaven, and we’ll all return ‘home’. I find that immensely life-reassuring and positive, and love the depth of meaning to life that ritual can apply, and which many miss.
‘As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ 1 Corinthians 15,22, The Book
So, taking a few minutes out of our busy lives, and letting someone smear ashes on your forehead while telling you that you are dirt is an experience that I would heartily recommend.
And, no I wont be dipping my thumb into the ash for every third person blessed, but I will take ‘pity’ on them and will wipe the excess off my thumb each time before applying and blessing them. And if you can’t get to participate in such a ritual, then rest assured that evening I will be thinking of you, blessing you (as I do now; be blessed) and will apply ashes to myself vicariously so you benefit.
We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden…
Woodstock, Crossby, Stills & Nash