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. I like wearing a symbolic declaration of my identity.
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 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 sin, that they are mortal, and that they look to Jesus for any hope of change.
I have this same feeling when sit, sandwiched between other penitents on the bench in the back of the church, waiting for my turn to go in to confession. There is something serious about setting aside time for self-evaluation, repentance, and affirmation of a desire to change. There is something important about desiring to strengthen my will to choose good and turn from evil. But there is something humbling to realize that I am 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.
And so I begin this season of Lent soberly, having a desire for spiritual growth and discipline. 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. 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. I like having that stamped on my forehead, the reminder that I belong to Christ and that he is working his will in me as he does with countless others.
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 not, as the constant reminder that I am marked as Christ’s own. Forever.