My son noted last night that we all had ashes on our foreheads, as our Ash Wednesday service had just ended, and in true 21st-century fashion he decided we needed a group selfie.
I had mixed feelings. On one hand, no one else has to see the photo; it’s just something for the digital shoebox, to remind us of that (snowy!) night in March.
Since I have two hands, I’ll also note that the reading I was assigned during the service was that big ol’ Isaiah chunk of calling out false piety. I thought a lot about those ashes. It’s always felt like wearing a sign, or at least a T-shirt. It reeks of piety. I always wash it off when I get home.
But none of us need to freak out. It doesn’t take a sacrifice, or even much of a commitment (and certainly not to a philosophy, just a commute to church one Wednesday evening). At the end, someone draws the form of a crucifix on your forehead with ash, and murmurs words about our ephemeral existence. Ain’t gonna be here long. Dust to dust, and so on. It sounds somber but not so much.
There’s quite a bit about hypocrisy in the lectionary for this time of year, if you pay attention. And if you do pay attention, you might get the idea that some of us are doing this whole thing wrong. Televangelism starts to feel very wrong, but just the whole range of faith expressions, up to and including “Honk If You Love Jesus!” bumper stickers, seems at the least a little crude.
But I don’t do any of that stuff, and I’m not sure why I should care about the others. Harm doesn’t seem to be done, unless to eyeballs that roll too far up in one’s eye socket. I turn the channel off. I take the pamphlet and promptly recycle. My bumpers are free and clear of statements. I wash off the ashes. I don’t wear shirts that proclaim, “Jesus loves YOU.”
To be fair, I don’t know if Jesus loves you, for one thing. I mean, that’s sort of a tenet, and I shouldn’t question it (and I’m not, really). It’s this absolutism that bothers me. I understand it; most of us who are interested in faith and faith systems understand that it’s in for a dime, in for a dollar. There are certain givens. Without those, the whole thing looks pretty shaky.
But I’m just one guy, and I always have a lot of questions. I listen to stories from the Old Testament and I think, hmm, not sure that exactly happened that way, even as we read them aloud and nod and try to figure out how they matter here in 2019.
So I’m not into the T-shirts and the jewelry and the other accoutrements of certain forms of Christianity. Ashes, though. Ashes are powerful. I am a living, respiring, self-aware human creature who is made out of stardust, and who will return to the same. It can’t hurt to remind ourselves, at least once a year, that we have temporary visas in this life.
And a lot of this reluctance to appear snotty or stuck-up because I let some minister swipe my forehead is just my shy side, the side that doesn’t want to be noticed until I’m ready to be noticed. There’s plenty of theology here to discuss. This isn’t casual, or just going through some motions. A lot of planning and discussion goes into this Ash Wednesday service, which I know because this year my wife planned it. It’s important to us. It’s not about the ashes.
But I’ve decided it’s about something, and I think I figured it out. We take steps, we make choices. We consider the future, and the past. We wonder about the meaning of our lives. We take small actions, many of them symbolic, because we need to do something. And sometimes, for reasons we might not understand, we just want a sign, something we can catch in the mirror, at least, and remember. And I can’t see the harm in letting a few random strangers catch a glimpse, get a little more information about you, judge you or not. Then you can wipe it off, but for the meantime you sort of slap it on yourself, and that’s not all that uncommon when you think about it.
I get the ashes. I get the yarmulkes and the dangling crucifixes and the prayer rugs and the rosaries, all of it, the public expression of our private thoughts. It’s not that different from other, secular things. I still wiped off the ash. But thoughtfully.