I will never forget the impact of my first Ash Wednesday as a priest - and repetition has done nothing to diminish the effect.
I made my way along the altar rail, tracing the cross in ash on foreheard after forehead.
It's a surprisingly intimate act...
When I offer the Blessed Sacrament, it matters hugely that I get myself out of the way - that I in no way intrude in that holy moment when God places Godself into cupped hands.
Ashing is different...for it is a moment when together we contemplate our common mortality.
"Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return"
Every year, I wonder if I am being prophetic...whether one or other of us will not be kneeling here in 52 weeks time.
I remember those whose foreheads I have marked - and whose funerals I have taken.
Tony, Elizabeth, Vera, Ivy, Harry, Richard - and others too.
Just a few days before, I traced the cross in the oil of catechumens at Baptism, reminding those gathered that the cross is more than just an invisible name-tape that confirms that "this child belongs to Jesus". It is, too, an indication of the shape of things to come - of the dying to self that is at the heart of our Christian journey.
We are on a continuum.
From the Ash Wednesday Eucharist I drive to the Crematorium for another encounter with mortality...my job now not to remind those present of their ultimate destination but to hold the flickering candle of faith as firmly as I can, so that those mired deep in grief may yet find their way home.
"He remembers we are but dust.
We flourish as a flower of the field.
When the wind goes over it, it is gone
And its place will know it no more"
There's such desolation in that line "Its place will know it no more"
Will we too be utterly forgotten?
And yet - that wind! It need not, after all, be the chilly blast of destruction but the life-giving wind of the Spirit, moving over the void to bring new life.
"The merciful goodness of the Lord endures forever and his righteousness upon their children's children"
"Rejoice, oh dust and ashes - the Lord shall be your part"
Mine is the voice of certainty. It is my role to believe for everyone present - and the liturgy enables this most wonderfully.
Now the cross is a signpost...I trace it once again as I commend the departed to God's care
"Go forth upon your journey..."
The cross is not only the way mark - it IS the way home.
"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ"