Something about Ash Wednesday is fascinating to us. We are intrigued to see people walking through the streets with black smudges on their foreheads. When I was a child, it seemed like it was only the Roman Catholics who "got ashed", but now the imposition of ashes has made its way into the wider church and even the popular culture.
Sometimes people spend their whole lunch hour to stand in line at a church, waiting for the ashes on their forehead, to be reminded that they are "but dust." "Fat Tuesday" revelers stop their partying and head for the churches as if to atone for their overindulgence. Hospital and nursing home patients, prison inmates, and homebound elderly all eagerly await the minister who will come with a container of palm ash. For this one day feasting gives way to fasting, and ashes seem more important than the Eucharistic Bread and Wine.
For some, it may be their annual chance to grovel before the Lord. The recitation of Psalm 51 -- "Wash me through and through from my wickedness" -- and a litany of penitence -- "We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness..." -- and kneeling while ashes are rubbed into their foreheads strikes a deep chord in weary hearts. There are times when we are painfully aware of our shortcomings. There are times when we resonate with the imagery of Cotton Mather's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God". There are times when we need to be confronted with our mortality. There are times when we can understand St Francis' saying, "Lord, I am a worm, and no man." Ash Wednesday presents us with an annual opportunity to satisfy this part of our spiritual identity, and we can grovel to our heart's content.
For others it may be a celebration of interconnectedness. "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return," is said to each and every one of us: the society matron and the Wall Street tycoon, the homeless beggar and the drug addict, the housewife and the bicycle messenger. We are confronted with our commonality as that mantra is repeated time and time again, and at each repetition it sinks deeper into our consciousness. We pray Psalm 51 and the litany of penitence in solidarity with those preparing for baptism or restoration to the church's fellowship. The liturgy of Ash Wednesday begins the pilgrimage that will end at the Easter vigil when the deacon sings "Earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God."
For still others it may be that the liturgy expresses in actions those feelings that are hard to put into words. We know that often the things we purchase to enhance our own lives are made by workers being exploited by "the way things are". We know that our use of fossil fuels is detrimental to the environment, but we don't know how to avoid them. We know that we have missed opportunities to bear witness to the Gospel because we didn't want to hurt the feelings of another. We know that time and time again we are caught in Catch-22 situations, and no matter what we do, sin will seem to win out. The Ash Wednesday Liturgy taps these underlying frustrations, and we experience at least a momentary respite as the liturgy gives credence to these feelings of dis-ease.
For me, all three of these themes and indeed the whole of the Ash Wednesday liturgy is summarized in the imposition of ashes: being marked with the sign of the cross on my forehead with the ashes of last Palm Sunday.
At baptism, new Christians receive the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and we say they are "marked as Christ's own for ever." They are signed with a corporate identity as children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, citizens of the household of faith and the kingdom of God. If oil is used in marking their foreheads, it is nearly clear, so it is hard to discern the mark of the cross.
But on Ash Wednesday, as we are marked with the sign of the cross, the sign is clearly visible. It is as if the reality of our identity as God's heirs and fellow siblings of Christ is only revealed by our getting our hands dirty and our feet wet. As the Gospel of John says, "The light shines in the darkness." We need the contrast of light and dark in order to see the brightness of the light. God is love at all times, but the love is best revealed in the passion of Good Friday.
The mark of the cross is the shape of a capital "I" scratched out. The capital "I". That which is uniquely me. My strengths and my weaknesses. My talents and my sins. I have imposed ashes on thousands of people, and I am struck at how different each one is: we come in all shapes and sizes, and colors and textures. Each of us is like none other. We are each called into a personal relationship with God that is different from everyone else -- not necessarily better or worse, just different. But this capital "I" is also that which separates me from God. It represents those things that I claim for myself alone: my terminal desire for uniqueness.
There is a fundamental difference between "sin" and "sins". "Sin" is the alienation and feelings of being separated from God, the sense that God is totally transcendent and holy and I am purely mortal and fallen. "Sins", on the other hand, are the relatively petty acts that are symptomatic of the underlying "sin." The capital "I" that forms part of the cross etched into my forehead is the "I" that underlies my "sin" -- that state of being separated from God.
In imposing the ashes, the vertical stroke of the capital "I" is followed by the horizontal stroke of crossing it out. The "I" that is crossed out is the "I" that leads to the feelings of alienation from God. It is as if in the horizontal stroke the loving arms of Christ are stretched out to welcome me back home. The wiping away of the "I" that separates me from God gives me the freedom and the ability to reach out to my brothers and sisters.
The cross of ashes is a call to repent of the "sin" that I allow to separate me from God -- a call to forgiveness and wholeness -- and at the same time, the cross of ashes is formed by my personal relationship with God intersecting with my solidarity, my commonality, with all the others for whom Christ died.
To paraphrase one of the Eucharistic prayers, may this liturgy of Ash Wednesday be not only a rite of solace, but a source of strength; not only a search for pardon, but an act of renewal; may the grace present make us one in Christ and encourage us to worthily serve the world in his Name.