On Ash Wednesday many will gather together, sing hymns, pray, hear the word proclaimed, eat the bread, drink the wine, and have ashes smeared in the shape of a cross on their foreheads.
What an odd way to begin a religious season. Yet that is the way many of those who try to follow the teachings of Jesus will mark the start of the forty days of Lent, the season in the Christian calendar that stretches from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before Easter (not counting the Sundays). We enter this holy season with a smudge of ash on our skin and the words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" ringing in our ears.
And somehow this strange activity seems...
For in those ashes and through those words, I am reminded of my own mortality, and my body is honored as more than a vessel for my soul. When the ashes are smeared on my forehead I am reminded that there is solidarity among all of us, even with the Christ (or perhaps especially with the Christ). As I look upon my friends and family members whose familiar faces also bear the mark, I am reminded of their fragility and the beauty of this often painful journey we are on together. In this strange blessing, I hear the echo of the words of baptism, "Brian Shivers, beloved child of God, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit", and I rest in the assurance that not even death itself can take away that core identity from me. If this gift of grace is true for me, it is true for you, and for all of God's children no matter their size or shape, shade or hue, gender or orientation, nationality or race, creed or doctrine. And that changes everything. Lent gives me forty days to begin a new discipline of seeing the beauty and frailty of the humanity of all with whom I come into contact as well as the spirit of the divine that dwells within each magnificent soul. And to think, it all begins with ashes in the shape of a cross.
that you are
and to dust
you shall return.