Ash Wednesday was yesterday. The liturgy for the day is fairly simple and rather somber. It is a service designed to remind us to be humble before God because we are the creatures and he is the creator. We are made of dust; he is holy and transcendent.
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer includes these words before the imposition of the ashes upon the forehead as a sign of this truth.
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the
earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our
mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is
only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
The ashes are imposed with the following words:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
It is a sobering reminder of our mortality, of the fleeting nature of this life.
Being a priest comes with its own reminders of mortality. We console the grieving and bury the dead. Being a soldier also keeps one in touch with death. Our job is to “stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat.” That comes with not only the burden of possibly taking another’s life, but knowing that we might give ours.
I have often joked with fellow soldiers that we think routinely of things other people try never to think about. It is our training and our job—from combat first aid to how to most efficiently kill the enemy and destroy things to annually updating next-of-kin and insurance information.
Effectively, to a soldier who is paying attention, every day is Ash Wednesday. Instead of putting ashes on our foreheads, we do something even more morose in some respects. We tag our body so it can be identified should we become killed or wounded.
Every morning I put on my identification tags or “dog tags” as they are more commonly known. Name, Identification Number, Blood Type, and Religious Preference. There are two of them so one can stay with my body and one can be taken as a record of my demise if necessary. I often recite, “You are but dust, and to dust you shall return,” as I put them over my head.
I also have my grandfather’s dog tags from his time in the Army in the Pacific Theater in WWII. They serve as a reminder of him and of his time as a soldier; a reminder of good memories and a reminder that one day, memories are all that will remain of me as well. When I get home at the end of the day, I take my dog tags off and give thanks to God that I am able to do so another day.
I also wear a cross.
It reminds me that even though I am but dust and ashes, I have hope. It reminds me that death is not the worst thing that can happen to me. Indeed, without death, we cannot be born again to eternal life. The Book of Common Prayer also instructs us in the Rite of Burial at the committal of the body to the grave.
In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty
God our brother; and we commit his body to the ground;
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless
him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him
and be gracious unto him, the Lord lift up his countenance
upon him and give him peace. Amen.