Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite days of the church year. Yet, it is also one that leaves me pondering, wondering, and scratching my head at its absurdity. As you read this, you might still have some remnants of ash upon your forehead or hand. Maybe you don’t and have completely cleansed yourself from the black marking on your flesh. I write this with ash-stained fingers from the Imposition of Ashes at the church which I serve. Regardless of who you are, I would invite you to scratch your head with me at the absurdity of Ash Wednesday.
It might seem odd that one of my favorite days of the church year is absurd. But it is. On Ash Wednesday, we do a strange thing. We mark ourselves with ash and outwardly display the sign of the cross on our foreheads. It’s strange because it is no different than walking around with a necklace bearing an electric chair charm, a lethal injection table, the gallows, or a rifle belonging to the firing squad. We parade around with an ashy symbol of an execution right before our eyes. Ash Wednesday is absurd because we put on death. We come to terms with mortality. We remember that we are dust, and to dust we will return. A sobering moment. A sobering reality. To look the elderly woman in the eye and remind her that death is approaching, or to place the cross on the forehead of the newborn baby, whose life is fresh. The reality is, death comes for everyone, and it leaves its mark on everything.
There is a relief that ashes are not permanently installed on our faces. There is a comfort in knowing that we can wash them off, erase them, and remove the brutality from our skin. It is a reminder of the baptismal waters which we have entered. It is a reminder that while we put on death on Ash Wednesday, it is only for a moment. It is a reminder that just as the ashes of death are pressed upon our skin, the waters of life will wash it away. It is a reminder that while we put on death for what may be only a moment, we rise from the waters of baptism and have put on life.
Thankfully, just as we are marked with the cross of death on Ash Wednesday, we are marked with a far more permanent cross in baptism, when the sign of the cross is made upon forehead and heart. This sign never fades. This cross not only kills but makes alive. This cross-claims. While death leaves its mark on everything, Christ comes after everyone. He relentlessly pursues and never wavers. Throughout these forty days, we will see the Lamb of God go uncomplaining forth and he will take away the sins of the world by dying on that rugged cross that rightfully belongs to us. It is there he will conquer it, and use something so brutal to accomplish his mightiest work. From death, he will rise. He will ascend. And he will come back.
So this Lent, this day after Ash Wednesday, do not forget the cross which you wear upon your face. Not the death which you put on when you received the ashes, but the life you put on when you were conquered and claimed in baptism. For you were lost, and you were found. For you were once dead, and now you are alive, in Christ. A blessed Lent to you, dear Christian.
“Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee
In life, in death, o Lord, abide with me
Abide with me, abide with me“