Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ash Wednesday

“Remember, from dust you came, to dust you will return.”

When you leave here, how long do you keep the ashes on your forehead? Are they gone, washed off with a damp Kleenex as soon as you reach your car? Maybe there’s no milk in the fridge and you have to stop at the Superstore on the way home. The last thing you need is for some well-meaning, but uninitiated cashier whisper earnestly, “Um, excuse me, but you have a little smudge on your forehead.”

How do you answer him? Do you say, “I just came from church, this is what we do on Ash Wednesday.”?

Or do you say, “This isn’t dirt. This is ash. It’s is to remind me that I came from dust, and I will return to dust.”

Such declarations or honest confessions don’t usually walk the aisles of the grocery store. Milk and mortality don’t normally mix in the easy marketplace small talk. It’s simpler just to smile, pay for your groceries, and move on.

If I do my job right, the cashier might notice that the little smudge looks like a plus sign, or an X. Someone might even recognize it as a cross. After all, there is some cultural memory left when Christians – mainly those dour Roman Catholics of ages past – smudged an ashen cross on their forehead and remembered they were dust.

But maybe you’re not going to the grocery store. Maybe you’re heading to the hospital. A co-worker had an operation and you’re just going to pop for a minute to see how she’s doing. But that damp Kleenex doesn’t do the job, and you still have a black smear on your forehead. You think about not going in because the smudge on the top of your head has spread across your brow, and you look like a coal miner who forgot his mirror by the canary cage.

But you’ll be quick – in and out – then home in time for Survivor.
The door to her room is closed. The family has gathered around the bed and they speak in hushed tones. Boxes of opened Kleenex boxes are scattered around the room. Soft, stifled whimpers spill out from between loved ones. And you know something is wrong.

“There was a problem during the operation,” her husband tells you, wiping away a tear. “We don’t know if she’s going to make it.”

You offer your condolences and promise that you’ll keep them in your prayers.

But as you leave, her daughter asks, “What’s that black stain across your forehead?”

What do you say? What CAN you say?

If you say, “This is ash. It’s is to remind me that I came from dust, and I will return to dust,” you might as well be pointing to the bed while you’re saying it. And you know that that is NOT the message this family wants to hear.

They need comfort. That black stain screams death.

They need reassurance. You are a billboard for mortality.

They need hope. Those ashes remind them of the inevitable.

So what DO you say?

Do you explain the ashes away, saying that this is just a church thing, a quiet, meaningless, ritual that begins the Lenten season? Do you deflect the question because you know the answers are simply too real and too raw given that situation?

Or do you let the ashes speak for themselves? A silent proclamation of the faith that’s marked on your body.

Do you let the ashes say: Yes, I will die some day Yes, I will roll around in the dust in an act of repentance and remembering and confidence. Yes, I will be mortal; I will trust God, because I can’t find my own way into eternity.

Do you let the ashes say all that?

That's the hard part, isn’t it? Explaining why we do what we do; remembering that the One who has delivered us from death knows that we are still dust. That the cross inscribed upon us is not just about Ash Wednesday. It points back to the sign marked upon us in our baptism, when we were “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever,” when us were drowned out of our first life and reborn into new and everlasting life. And yet we who have been re-born, come here to be marked with the cross that reminds us that we are but dust.

So we will leave this space marked with our own funerals. And yet, this baptized life, this mark of the sign of our own first death, marks us as dying into a life made new- when Jesus hung on that cross.

Open my lips, O Lord, the psalmist cries out,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice,
but you take no delight in burnt offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Yes, we pray, please Lord, open our lips, because without your help, we would not know how to proclaim your praise. Without your help we would not know how to live with our mortality. Without your help we would not have the promise of salvation. (Elizabeth Huwiler)

These 40 days our troubled spirits, our broken and contrite hearts, are what we offer our God, and we follow our Saviour to Jerusalem, where we die with him as he dies our death.

So try as we might. We can never wash the ashes from our forehead. They stubbornly refuse to be wiped clean. Only though the waters of life given to us in baptism is the stain of death removed.

In the meantime, I think I’ll leave my ashes on my forehead for the world to see. That will be my proclamation. The ashes will point to the one who takes us small handfuls of dust and creates something new and everlasting.



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