I like participating in Ash Wednesday. I like walking around with a cross of ashes right smack dab in the middle of my forehead. I like the surreptitious glances of people who see the mark and then quickly look away, as if they caught me doing something inappropriate.
Ash Wednesday marks me as a Christian, someone who would follow Jesus on his journey through the wilderness toward Easter. The mark of the cross identifies me with the historic Christian faith, but it leaves me without an agenda.
It is not a bumper-sticker Christianity that proclaims what I do or do not support. It is not my effort to convert others to my way of thinking. It is not an indictment of those Other Christians Who are Doing It Wrong.
It does not set me aside as an individual; rather, the two smeared lines of ashes join me together with the people of God who, throughout the ages, have declared that they are mortal, that they sin, and that they look to Jesus for any hope of change.
I had this same feeling when I sat, sandwiched between other penitents on the bench in the back of a church, waiting for my turn to go into private confession. There is something serious about the work of self-evaluation, repentance, and affirmation of a desire to change.
There is something important about strengthening my will to choose good and turn from evil. But there is something humbling to be one in a long line of sinners who, regardless of what we have done or neglected to do, wait desperately for the mercy and absolution of a loving God.
The reality of my humanity, of my ordinariness, strips me of self-importance, even in the midst of repentance. Because here’s the thing: when I first started engaging Lent, I thought of it as an avenue for individual repentance.
While that is partially true, the wording of the liturgy intentionally invites collective repentance: “WE have sinned against you,” and we, together, name a litany of the ways we have been active and complicit in the unbearable impact of sin on self, others, and all of creation.
I am learning that naming wrong and evil, demonstrating an awareness of the impact, is an important component of the work of penitence, and the lections for the day, Isaiah 58 and Joel 2, ring with clarion denouncement of the hypocrisy of spiritual performance without active repair.
Traditionally, Lenten practices aim at abstinence or engagement, or, if I read Isaiah and Joel correctly, might best be both. True penitence results in change, and we reflect God’s image when we work to set things to right. I love His love for justice:
As His Body in the world, we stop doing wrong and learn to do right. Yet the capacity for religious performance and individual piety to displace God’s desire for Good News to come to all people echoes through the entire arc of Scripture, and I am especially mindful of it today.
So I come to Ash Wednesday soberly and also gently welcome a season of penitence, knowing that I will break my fast and fail to love God whole-heartedly and to love others as I love myself, knowing that the line between good and evil runs through me as well as all of us.
But there is nothing remarkable in that. Nothing unexpected. What is remarkable is that at the end of Lent comes the promise and the hope of Easter.
Being one of many sinners who seek and receive God’s gift of grace frames all of Lent, in fact any act of contrition or repentance, with the mystery and hope of the Gospel–Christ in us, the hope of glory.
By the end of the day today, the cross of ashes will most likely be rubbed into an unrecognizable smudge.
By the end of the season of Lent, I will have repented and failed and repented and failed some more, and hopefully grown in awareness and strength of character.
But the mark of the cross will remain on my life, seen on my forehead or no. And I pray that the Church, even amidst all our failures and sins, will bear a cruciform shape in our witness, because we are all marked as Christ’s own. Forever.
Thank you for your teaching. I have never followed Ash Wednesday, yet today, it feels important. Today I feel my weekness, my vulnerablility to sin. Thank yo for this reminder.
I love this hopeful thought..”and hopefully grown in awareness and strength of character.”..thank you.
You have so many profound statements that I relate strongly to:
“The reality of my humanity, of my ordinariness, strips me of self-importance, even in the midst of repentance.”
“Yet I also go gently into a season of penitence, knowing that I will break my fast and, if nothing else, fail to love God whole-heartedly and to love others as I love myself. But there is nothing remarkable in that. Nothing unexpected.”
I’m still trying to decide what to fast from. I didn’t grow up recognizing Lent, so it is new to me the past few years, but I have benefited from this season of deep reflection. Thanks for spurring me on today.