“You’ve got some dirt on your face.”
This is a phrase I heard from a compassionately secular friend of mine some three years ago. She was referring to what ultimately did look like a black smudge on my forehead. I knew it was there. But, it had a purpose. “I know,” I told her, with a smile, knowing this would generate a fascinating conversation between believer (myself) and non (her). The “dirt” or smudge on my face was, in fact, soot – the incompletely burned char of palm branches. Odd, I know. While I did not place the mark there myself, I willingly chose to have it placed there and throughout the rest of my day, bore the smudge proudly. Eventually, my friend remarked, “Okay, I give up. What the hell is it? You’re like the twentieth person I’ve seen with that today!” My reply to her was short and sweet: “It reminds me that I am loved.”
Some readers, I guarantee, know where this piece is heading, but for those who do not know, like my friend once did not, allow me to enlighten you. On one day every year, Christians throughout the world celebrate a day known as Ash Wednesday. On this day, we willingly and freely choose, as I did, to go before a priest, minister, or some religious authority and receive a black cross traced on our forehead with ashes. We do this because Ash Wednesday begins a 40 day season for us of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving known as “Lent.” Throughout the 40 days of Lent, Christians prepare themselves spiritually for our greatest religious holy day… Easter.
Christiansare “followers of Jesus Christ,” hence the name, who according to our belief and in the words of the Nicene Creed, “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried… descended to the dead and rose again, from the dead, in accordance with the Scriptures.” This Jesus that we believe in, follow, and love was not the first person to be crucified some 2000+ years ago when what is present day Jerusalem was under Roman rule, nor was He the last to have been executed in such a fashion. But, there were some things about this man that made Him… utterly unique… and I might proudly and unashamedly add, in the best ways possible. We, as followers of Jesus, believe that this man not only cared, and still cares personally and intimately for us, but even further, that He loved and still loves us. In fact, we believe that He loved all creation into existence because, for us, this Jesus is “very God of very God,” who created all that is from out of nothing. Further, we believe that Jesus bore the weight of all of our sins and freely chose to take our place by His sacrificial death on the Cross. As I mentioned above, Jesus wasn’t the first or the last person to be executed by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans, but… (and here comes the best part) He was the only One to die from that form of execution and then come back!
Indeed, three days after Jesus died (on a day Christians still remember as “Good Friday”) and was buried, He rose again, bodily, from the dead. Call us silly, if you will, for believing in this. It’s okay… we’ve all heard it before, but it doesn’t change our belief in this reality. Nevertheless, this is everything for those of us who believe in Jesus. See, Jesus said a lot of things in His very short life that are chronicled in the New Testament of The Bible and while I am not going to recount them all for you here (though I suggest you pick up a copy and do your own background research on Him), I will make clear that some of the things He said would have been obvious and outright lies, IF and only if He had not come back to life from death. But, He did, and that is why Easter is such a huge celebration for Christians. It literally means life, love, and eternity for us all… and for everyone, as well, whether they believe so or not.
So, ashes and Ash Wednesday. Right… Don’t think I had forgotten. Christians go through this annual ritual of preparation for the Easter miracle and celebration because we remember the depth of not only how much we are truly loved by Jesus, but also, what His love did for us, namely, it provides us with everlasting life and ensures us of our own bodily and spiritual resurrection. Beyond this, we remember the more sobering reality that, because of our sins and failures, we do not deserve this love in the least, yet, we are freely and constantly given this incredible love. Even more stunning is the poignant meaning of that black-soot cross, traced annually on the foreheads of billions of Christians throughout the world… our sins cost us the very life of the only One who can and ever will love us perfectly, no matter what. Jesus died for each one of our shortcomings.
That’s what that black-soot cross on our foreheads means. It’s a reminder that while we are sinners still, we are loved clean of those sins by Jesus, “very God of very God,” and there is nothing at all we can do about it. This is happy news.
I’d like to close this brief, and by no means fully-explanatory, riff on Ash Wednesday by highlighting a personal experience. As my writing above demonstrates, I am very much a believer. I am also fortunate enough in my capacity as a Benedictine Oblate, to be able to annually “impose” or distribute those smudged crosses to my fellow believers. Each year, I do this with the chaplain corps at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Distributors of the yearly ashes are given two prayer-phrase options to recite to each person who receives the ash-crosses. One is particularly morbid and unhelpfully discouraging in our Christian life, in my theological opinion, while the other – the one I use – is a reminder of hope.
As I trace the ash-cross on each person’s forehead, I remind them, out of love for God, to
“Turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel,”
assured by Jesus’ own Resurrection, that we, too, may experience pain, sorrow, and shame in this life, but will one day rise again having overcome it all. This is our faith; this is the meaning of Ash Wednesday, and this just goes to show you that those smudgy black marks on our foreheads are, without doubt, so much more than soot.
Anthony Maranise is an editor with The Galleon and is with the Master of Arts in Catholic Studies Cohort here at CBU.