Sometimes a slight cinder trace, other times a dark smudge, substantial as the sludge at the bottom of my French Press. Today, some time, I will forget and rub the sign and symbol in soot and it will spread across my brow, reminding me not only of the inevitability of my death, but of a darkness which mars my soul. Marked for death and dirty.
Many Christians—Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Anglicans—begin the season of Lent with the imposition of ashes. It is no imposition for me. I love it. The congregation I am currently in, has no such service today, so we’ve sought out one that does. It hasn’t happened yet. You can ash me about it later.
Lent is a forty day period, a penitential season designed to prepare our hearts for the message of Easter. It is time for reflection on the way of the cross, on our mortality and the suffering of the world, while we look forward to the glory of resurrection and the new life available through Jesus. Ash Wednesday is the big the kick off. A priest or pastor traces a cross on our foreheads and says, “From dust we came, to dust we shall return.” If this season culminates in new life, it begins with words that name life’s fleetingness and fragility.
Today is a day of fasting. What Scot McKnight calls ‘a full body response to a grievous sacred moment’ (Fasting, 2009). We begin with Ash. From dust we came. We are reminded our best strategies will not stave off the silence of death. To dust we shall return. We are ephemeral and insubstantial. Eternity, significance, hope, these shall come. First steps are always feeble.