Every year after Ash Wednesday, it takes a while for me to clean out the ashes completely from under my fingernails. I don't know if other ministers have this problem, but like most ministerial burdens, this one is also a blessing.
In a middle-class church like mine, it can seem as if most of us have things together. People don't particularly dress up at our church, but we put on our game faces and generally appear happy when we show up. Sure, there are some public struggles -- deaths, battles with cancer and the occasional divorce, but mostly the wounds are hidden. Only those of us who receive pastoral confidences can look out at a congregation and see a multitude of sins and struggles. Those stories, and the grief and loss they represent, cling to us like this mix of oil and ashes, easy to spread and hard to remove. Once a year we have the grace to say it out loud and make it visible for all to see.
It can be easy to turn Lent into a sort of New Year's Resolution time, and make ourselves as pastors into personal trainers. But I believe we begin the season with these ashes to remind ourselves that our disciplines, no matter how "successful," do not change our essence. We are all made out of the same mortal stuff. Done well, our feeble efforts to pray, fast and serve the poor only remind us again of our weakness. We are dust, but that dust is mixed with the oil of royalty because God has chosen to enter it. Our mortality is formed in the shape of a cross, blessed and broken open for the sake of others.
I will scrub out the ashes from under my nails, but it's good to be reminded of their persistence.