I have always been fascinated with the Hebrew word “ruach”, and I am reminded of this each year on Ash Wednesday. The Hebrew translation for ruach is breath, spirit or wind. The same one word in Hebrew represents different words in English. In the Old Testament, it says in the second creation account “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” -Genesis 2:7. “Ruach” is present in this story and in the dust that created each of us.
So, on Ash Wednesday as I sit in worship, I wonder to myself… Why are these people here? What made them remember that today is the beginning of Lent? Routinely, this day brings two to three times as many people to our churches than any other Wednesday during Lent. Did they hear something on the TV or radio that reminded them? Or, do we just know this day is something different? Maybe in a strange way, even life giving?
Ash Wednesday is somewhat of a dark day, especially when we think of the ashes being placed on our foreheads with the words spoken “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. The darkness is a reminder that we all face the reality of death in our life, and we do not know when that day will come. Some people will die too early and some will die after long and satisfying lives.
Twelve years ago on Ash Wednesday, I had just begun cancer treatments for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I had recently learned the treatments were not working very well and the tumor in my abdomen was growing, not shrinking. I was beginning to develop some other complications as well. It was a point in my life when I had to make friends with death and my own mortality- more so than I ever had before. I think others in my life began to face that reality as well. They too were beginning to grieve my death, even though I was still alive.
The pastor from the church I was serving at asked if I would help with the imposition of ashes at worship that year. I asked him if he thought that was a good idea considering my situation and he simply said… “Yes”. So, I agreed to help. When the worshipers began coming forward, I noticed people shuffling from the lines they were originally ushered into. Some were stepping out of my line, while others were stepping into my line. I am not completely sure why, but I think it may of had something to do with there own understanding and comfort with mortality.
As I stood there with my darkened finger, I had several interesting looks from people when they came forward. But the best was when a young child came with her Mom. This child could not even truly understand the words I was speaking to her… “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” She just embraced the innocence of the moment and looked up at me and smiled when touched her forehead. As they walked away, the girl held up her bangs, looked at her mom and said… “Does it look okay mommy?” Others in the sanctuary heard her and this charming moment broke through the somber mood in the room. People smiled, and some even chuckled quietly to themselves. This girl did not know my situation, she was only wondering about her own experience. Did it look okay? This was important to her, so others would know she had a cross on her forehead. That is the Gospel.
This is what Ash Wednesday should be. God’s spirit alive even when we are facing the reality of death and our own mortality. Ruach was in those ashes. Ruach was in that little girl who broke through the somber and silence by creating joy for a moment. Ruach was in me that night and thankfully still today. Ruach is alive in everyone. Even in our darkness, in our wilderness and over these next 40 days, Ruach is present. We began as dust. Ruach gave us our life, our gifts, our breath. We will become dust in the ground again but our Ruach, the Ruach of God will live forever. We trust in all this because though it is now Lent, we know the gift we are given in the end on Easter Sunday.