On Sunday evening, I got a phone call from a member of our congregation. She wanted me to know about another member of the church who was dying. She wanted to make sure I knew, and that I would go out to see her as soon as possible.
A little later I got a text from someone else with the same message. It was already late, so I resolved to go over early the next morning.
That Sunday morning we had been on the mountaintop with Jesus. It was a brief, shining encounter; we raised up brightly colored Alleluias and shouted and then put them away for Lent. That morning we remembered the words, "This is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased."
Then, on Monday morning, I drove over to the assisted living center where this 101 year old woman lived. I considered that she had faithfully attended worship almost every single Sunday, but not the day before. One of her daughters-in-law was at the door of her apartment when I arrived. She was sleeping peacefully. I prayed and sang and spoke in her ear; I sang Beautiful Savior and What a Friend we Have in Jesus. I told her how important she was; how much the children loved her. Her daughter-in-law told her that her husband was waiting for her, that everyone would be all right.
Then I got a small container of oil out of my purse. It was something I had just received; a hand-me-down from a retired pastor. I hadn't used it before. I unscrewed the lid; there was not much balm left, but there was enough to put on my finger, and on her forehead, and to say the words, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked by the cross of Christ forever."
And I remember that after that, her daughter in law took the container from me for a moment and she smelled the fragrance of that small amount of balm.
It was two days before Ash Wednesday.
On Wednesday morning at 7:30 I was standing in the lobby of our congregation's pre-school. Parents came in with babies and toddlers, and I was there to offer ashes and strange words to anyone who stopped. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." And although not everyone stopped, some did, expressing thanks, some silently. One man told me that he was raised Catholic, but hadn't been for awhile. Several brought their children to be marked as well.
And even though I do this, I offer the words and the ashes, I have to wonder what it is that draws people to the ashes and the words, "Remember that you are dust"? It seems like the last thing we would want to remember.
A little later, I held a chapel service for the children over in our sanctuary. We heard the story of Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, and how the fourth man was with them in the flames, so that they were not burned. And afterwards, two of the teachers and several of the older children also wanted ashes on their foreheads, in the form of a cross.
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
After the chapel service, when I arrived at the church office, and I learned that my 101 year old member had died that morning.
"You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever."
Oil and ashes, we are marked. We are born and we die. We die, and we are born again.
At the end of the day I got a message from a young mother from my church. She said they had really hoped to come to the noon service, but they didn't make it.
But before she went to bed, her daughter went to the fireplace, and found ashes and marked her parents with the ashes. With the sign of the cross.
You are dust, you are marked with oil and ashes. You are born and you die. You die, and you are born again.