I remember the first time I showed up to school and noticed several people with dark smudges on their foreheads. Just as I was about to say something to my baseball coach, I noticed someone else with the same marking. I wondered if an epidemic was around the corner or maybe this was one of those high school theme days and I had missed the memo.
I was not raised in a tradition that celebrated lent, so ash wednesday and lent were foreign to me. My congregation celebrated Easter, but the forty days before were no different than the forty days after. They were ordinary calendar days where people worked and played sports and followed the news. But one Ash wednesday in Graduate school I joined a friend for an ash wednesday service, received the ashes, and have been a regular ever since.
There are a couple reasons I take part in lent each year. I like the discipline of giving something up. Each year it is different, but each year I am reminded the thing I give up does not give me life (Except for the year Jill and I gave up all beverages other than water. . . that was a year of real suffrage.)
I also enjoy the build up towards Easter. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus begins his journey towards Jerusalem much earlier than in the others. Luke 9:51 says, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face to Jerusalem.” This kind of turning happens for me with lent. I mark the lenten days differently. They are days where I notice the not yet of our current situation, but I am able to lean into resurrection hope. The days do not just pass; there is a rhythm and something is happening.
As you receive the ashes the Priest pronounces, “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return” as they make the sign of the cross on each person’s forehead. This is not said once for all, but over each person, every soul. There is something powerful about the words over and over. These words, along with the confession and absolution, are life for me. This remembrance pulls me ever so briefly out of a couple bad habits.
The first is this ugly obsession to calculate my worth in each gathering. A plus here for that clothing choice. An upgrade there for that witty comment. More often than not I am on the losing end of this game, but this is my project, not reality. The ashes draw me out of this project. They reset my imagination; it helps me see people more clearly.
Ashes made in a cross on my forehead also remind me of who I am related to God. It pulls me, at least for a brief moment, out of my furious reliance on myself. The ashes help me notice my idolatry and failure. Luke Timothy Johnson argues our human instinct is toward idolatry, he calls this the human project. When left to our own devices, we look at the world as if it is ours to control. Every relationship works to hold us in our idolatrous project, but grace is the gift of Otherness that demands the project be broken. The ashes are grace for me; the whole lenten season is a marking of grace.