I have had many memorable Ash Wednesdays. There was the first year I officiated at an Ash Wednesday service as a layperson. There was 2011, the year of the Act 10 protests, when the final vote occurred during our evening liturgy and we could hear the demonstrations as we knelt for the Litany of Penitence.
But perhaps my most memorable Ash Wednesday only became that in retrospect. A few years ago, I put ashes on the forehead of a dying parishioner. It was the first time she was in church after beginning chemotherapy earlier that year, and I recognized her only because she was accompanied by her daughter whose face was familiar to me. A few weeks later, she would die and I would officiate at her funeral and burial.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Those words, these ashes are a sign of our mortality, a reminder to us that we are created from the dust of the earth, and that our bodies will return to the earth.
Those words weigh heavily on my soul when I say them to myself each year, and their weight accumulates on me as I say them to you. I suspect they weigh heavily on you as well, as they challenge all of us to reflect on our mortality, to admit to ourselves who we are—dust and ashes, and that we will once more be dust and ashes, that all of our efforts to the contrary, all of our attempts to hold death at bay will come to nothing.
But contemplation of our nature, our provenance and end, is not an end in itself. We do this ritual, we make this strange gesture, we wear this smudge on our forehead to remind us of who we are and to remind us also of who God is. For it is God who made us out of the dust of the earth. It is God who has given us life and all that we have. Yet like our fear and desperate attempts to ignore our mortality, to fight the finality of death, so too do we often find ourselves running away from or ignoring God. We construct defenses; we try to hide. We put in place of God all manner of idols that we worship and pursue: financial success or security, fame, power; bright, shiny possessions; or the thrill of new experiences.
Cross-shaped ashes on our foreheads, the admonition “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” lay bare the emptiness of all those pursuits. They break down the barriers, strip our defenses, leave us kneeling before God our maker and redeemer.
Our empty selves, our vain hopes, brought to nothing by those words, leaving us with broken and contrite hearts. It is then that we can encounter God, stripped of our defenses, and open ourselves to deeper relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.
We carry the ashy cross on our foreheads for a few hours, a day if we’re careful. But we’re just as likely to brush it off intentionally as soon as we leave church, or perhaps unintentionally, when it vanishes as we take off our winter hats or caps.
There’s a cross marked on us that is permanent, indelible, that can’t be brushed or washed off. It’s made with the same gestures, my thumb making the sign of the cross on foreheads, but with oil of chrism instead of ashes. And I say something quite different as well.
Instead of, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the words I say on Ash Wednesday, after baptizing someone, I dip my thumb in oil of chrism, and make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized, saying while I do it, “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.
We bear that cross all of our lives, even if it is invisible. It is the mark of our belonging to Christ, the mark of our faith. And just as the cross of ash reminds us of our mortality, the cross marked in oil is a sign of who we truly are and of our ultimate destiny. We are beloved children of God.
We can forget that identity; as the cross is invisible, it can be forgotten under the weight of our sin and our doubts. But it may be that just as our foreheads are marked with ashes, the ash works as an abrasive, removing all of the accretions, so that our baptismal crosses are visible to ourselves and to the world. We are Christ’s own forever.
Of course, the Season of Lent has us think about another cross, the cross that looms ahead at the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. It’s a journey on which we are invited to accompany Jesus, to walk with him as his disciples and followers. When Jesus explained to his disciples what it meant to follow him, he said, “If you would be my disciples, take up your cross and follow me.”
We are carrying crosses today; these smudges of ash on our forehead. We carry that other cross on our forehead as well, the sign that we are Christ’s own forever. Lent encourages us to embrace another cross, the cross of discipleship, growing into our identities as followers of Jesus. As we walk this way of Lent, may we find it a time when we confront our mortality, claim our identity as children of God, and grow more deeply Christ-like as we accompany him.