It's pretty normal for Ash Wednesday services to include the Eucharist as well as imposition of ashes, but the particular order of service at my church tonight stood out to me. We confessed, blessed the ashes, and then before imposition of ashes, spoke and sang the Great Thanksgiving. We came forward to receive ashes and then went straight to the table to receive communion. I had noticed when reading the bulletin before service that this would be the case, but it didn't really sink in until I took communion.
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." To hear those words and then go straight to the table and hear "The body of Christ, given for you" and "The cup of salvation" really emphasizes what an incredible gift this is. I am dust, I was just reminded of this, and yet I am invited to this table? I am offered this grace? I am a created being, just dust, finite. I am being taught to number my days. And yet, Christ invites.
Or maybe we are told "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" as the ashen cross is painted on our foreheads, and then to proceed to the table is to taste and see the Gospel. What is it that we are to believe? "The body of Christ, broken for you." "The blood of Christ, shed for you."
We frame Lent as a penitential season, a season for being intentional about reflection, confession, repentance, and surrender to God. But we cannot separate that from God's invitation, the very grace that allows us to know our sin, and from God's forgiveness. The story doesn't end with us mourning our sins.
The reading from Joel calls the people to repentance, reminding them that God is gracious and compassionate. The singer of Psalm 51 speaks of being made clean to then teach and proclaim God's word. The parable of the prodigal son does not stop when the younger son realizes how much he has done wrong. We see the father welcome him home and call him son with great joy.
Our story doesn't end with ashes, not even temporarily. Repent, and believe. You are dust, and to dust you shall return, and you are welcome at God's table.