Ash Wednesday, now one of my favorites in the church calendar, was at one time the most offensive of all religious rituals to me. It seemed to me unnecessary to fast, it seemed that wearing ashes on one’s forehead undermined the entire point of fasting in secret and it seemed to me a morbid and unhelpful holdover of heavy and useless tradition. It is of course unnecessary to fast. The gospel is that there is nothing we can do to further appease God because he is pleased with us in Christ. Some people do treat it as a day to lord their idea of holiness over others. This is not only offensive but worse – a tragic unholiness. And of course it is so very odd to wear ashes on one’s forehead to declare that one is fasting in secret. It is hardly a secret when a community of people come together and receive ashes on their foreheads. It is no mystery cult although each one can approach God in the secret of their own hearts.
There is a sense in which holiness cannot help but be known and offensive. To be holy is to be set apart and this means banding together in a group and this can draw attention. When the priest puts his fingers in that mix of oil and the ashes from last year’s palm branches he sets out to mark out a people. And what makes these people so very special? They are going to die. That isn’t anything so very special. It especially struck me when I brought my first baby for the imposition of the ashes. She was so tiny, so fragile, so full of life and she too was mortal. At that time I hadn’t yet lost a baby and I didn’t realize how truly mortal every life is. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” We are nothing special – everyone is going to die. The special holiness is that these who receive the mark are those who will come to church on Palm Sunday and march around the church carrying palms declaring that Jesus Christ is king. These are the same people that will come to church on Easter Sunday in their best clothes and celebrate that Jesus Christ died and conquered death by coming back to life. The same people, the same message, a different manifestation each time in order to tell the same story.
John saw a similar picture in the Revelation, “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God. . . After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:3 and 9)
John dreamed about the church. (Rev. 1:20) He didn’t dream about his own clever invention of how to suppress women and wield authority over others by making them feel guilty. He was alone on an island condemned to death. He dreamed that what he had witnessed – Jesus actually coming back to life – really would change the world. He dreamed that every type of person in the world would one day come together and worship Christ and be free from the anxiety of death. We the church are set apart today and every day because we are going to die and we are not afraid. “A noble army, men and boys the matron and the maid around his holy throne rejoice in robes of light arrayed. They climbed the steep ascent to heaven through peril toil and pain. Oh God to us may grace be given to follow in their train.” (from The Son of God Goes Forth to War)
(The above illustration was a different color when I made it in Adobe Illustrator . . . I have some figuring out to do.)