Ash Wednesday. The day of the year that many Christians around the world gather in their places of worship and participate in a ritual in which they submit to having ashes imposed on their foreheads and hear the words, “Remember … that you are dust; and to dust you shall return.”
I was raised among a tribe of Lutherans that did not buy into so “pagan,” so “cultish” a practice. It became normative for me when I was a seminarian. It’s been interesting to see that, of all Christian rituals, it has become the most common practice: in some major urban areas, people who, for years, have not been in a church, will line up before clergy of any number of denominations who are prepared to impose ashes on the foreheads of all who ask for them. I wonder why: maybe there’s a hidden, subliminal need to “hedge their bets” in the face of a culture that is, in so many ways, clearly not found of admitting that “one day, I, too, will die.”
I remember the Ash Wednesday when I heard the preacher preach on the text, “Beware of practicing your piety before others;” and I took to heart his point that “therefore we wash our faces before we return to the streets, lest we offend others by showing off how pious we are with our crosses of ash on our foreheads.” It was not a hard thing to do, given my early bias against the ritual anyway.
This all changed on the Ash Wednesday when I walked into the copy room where I was working at the time, and saw a highly regarded senior member of the department with ashes on his forehead. He nodded at me to acknowledge my presence, and then, since he was done with his business, he left the room. I was stunned for a moment: I had no idea prior to that moment that he was even a Christian. But at the moment, it was unmistakably clear: he was a Christian; and that he believed something fervently, and without apology.
There is a rational logic to the argument against wearing ashes. On the other hand, to wear ashes is to make a statement, and a deeper statement than just to “show off one’s piety.” There are so many statements that one might be making, and many of them are counter-cultural – a not bad thing. I want to suggest one.
I have for many years now been including in my prayers the phrase, “Jesus, crucified with me.” Not just for me, but with me. It’s a statement the recognizes that, whatever my experience on this day of my earthly pilgrimage, whether joyful or painful or humiliating – Jesus, in his suffering, in his death, in his resurrection – has experienced it as well. To wear ashes on Ash Wednesday is to declare to the world: I know that I am not alone.
The Rev. Allen Heggen