Ashes, Water, and the Sign of the Cross

On the afternoon of February 14, 2018, a 19-year-old former student of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, FL, returned to his alma mater with semi-automatic weapons, killing seventeen students and staff, wounding seventeen others, and traumatizing countless more. I count myself among the traumatized.

It was Valentines Day. It was also Ash Wednesday.

At the time, I was the Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Coral Springs, a community adjacent to Parkland. Many of our members lived in Parkland, and had connections to the school.

We’d already observed Ash Wednesday at a noon-time worship service, and had another service planned for the evening. Late in the afternoon, I made a quick trip home, which was just a short distance from the church and the school. As I was driving home, emergency vehicles of all kinds, from all of the surrounding communities, sped past, toward Parkland. When I pulled into my driveway, I could hear the sound of numerous helicopters hovering nearby – a sound that continued for weeks upon weeks. Neighbors stood in their yards, and told me there was a shooting at the High School. I went inside, turned on the local news and watched live video coverage, from the same helicopters I heard outside. At that point, no one knew if anyone was dead. I prayed, and I wondered what to do.

We decided NOT to cancel the evening Ash Wednesday service, not knowing if anyone would actually come. I sensed we needed to be available, if anyone needed or wanted to be there. And, as the service time approached, details from the tragedy slowly emerged. There were deaths and injuries. The shooter was apprehended. Traffic was gridlocked, as every school in every surrounding community was on lock-down. Parents of Stoneman Douglas students frantically searched for their children, who’d scattered in multiple directions as they fled the school.

Obviously, the Ash Wednesday service we planned was no longer relevant or appropriate. We literally adapted the service on the fly. We changed the music and the prayers. I changed my message – but, to what, I don’t recall. And, yet, the ashes still seemed appropriate, necessary. In fact, the ashes spoke a deeper truth than they might have otherwise.

The ashes of Ash Wednesday are a reminder of our mortality. They remind us that we are made, by God, from dust. They remind us that without God, and the gift of life, we are little more than ash and dust. They remind us that sin separates us from God, the source of life. Smeared on foreheads, in the shape of a cross, as the pastor says, “Remember. From ashes you have come; to ashes, you shall return,” the ashes are a tangible, visible reminder that life is fragile. That night, with ashes on our foreheads and tears in our eyes, we all felt so very fragile.

Though it wasn’t a huge crowd, more showed up for the service than I expected, including traumatized students who’d witnessed the tragedy firsthand, accompanied by their traumatized parents. Those who attended needed to be there. They needed their church. They needed their friends. They needed comfort. They needed God. We all desperately needed God.

Fast-forward five years. As a global pandemic continues, we’ve learned just how fragile we all are. Gun violence continues, unabated. And, as Russia invades Ukraine, innocent people are suffering and dying, and many are fleeing in search of safety. Today’s ashes are still a reminder of our fragility.

Last Sunday night, I baptized a beautiful one-week old baby girl, in the NICU of a local hospital, surrounded by her parents, grandparents and extended family, all of us crowded into her little room. She was born with severe brain-damage, due to complications, and isn’t expected to survive long without life support. As I baptized her, I gently drew a sign of the cross on her forehead with water, just as I will mark worshipper’s heads today with ash. She was so fragile.

Whether in ashes or water, the central symbol is the same – the sign of the cross. Ashes remind us of our mortality and dependence on God for life. The waters of baptism remind us of new birth, new life, and the promise of resurrection. The symbol of the cross reminds us that God entered our fragility, in Jesus, even unto death, and overcame it. God knows our fragility, because God became fragile for us, with us.

I don’t recall exactly what I said at the February 14, 2018 Ash Wednesday service. I don’t even recall what I said two nights ago, at the NICU baptism. Whatever I said was inadequate, I’m quite sure – words often fall short in moments like that. But, in both, God was undeniably present, with us in our fragility, symbolized in ash or water, in the shape of Christ’s cross. In our most fragile moments, God is there. In the pain, sorrow, and tears, God is there. And, somehow, someway, far beyond my ability to comprehend or explain, the cross communicates the healing promise, “By his wounds, we are healed.”

Many of us will attend Ash Wednesday services today as a traditional observance, as we have many times before. I suspect most attendees won’t feel any more fragile than usual. For most, today is simply the beginning of Lent. But, if this is a particularly fragile moment or season for you, let the ashes speak to your heart and soul. Let the mark of the cross speak to you. God is with you. In all of your vulnerable fragility, God is with you. And, God in Christ has overcome.

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