A “moveable feast” Ash Wednesday can occur as early as February 4 or as late as March 10 and was so named because of the practice of drawing a cross upon the forehead of followers as a sign of repentance.
Typically, a minister or priest will quote the book of Genesis as the ashes are applied to the individual’s forehead, saying: “Remember, O man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)
This verse hearkens one’s thoughts back to the fall of humanity, whereupon the transgression of God’s first laws by Adam and Eve resulted in mankind being cast out of Eden. The curse of which followers of Jesus Christ believe was lifted by the atoning work of His death by Roman crucifixion.
Another parallel drawn can be found in the prophecy of Ezekiel. The Scriptures describe a vision the prophet saw, where a “man clothed in linen” placed a “mark” upon those that felt sorrow for the evil that surrounded them.
The ones who felt this sorrow and received the mark were spared, while those that did not perished.
In the Bible you can find many examples of ashes being used to express lamentations, either for a tragedy or repentance for one’s own failures. From the accounts of Job and Jonah in the Old Testament to the ministry of Jesus and the Epistle to the Hebrews in the New Testament, one can find allusions to this practice.
The use of ashes has long held a mystic and penitential significance, not only in my own Judeo-Christian tradition but also in various cultures.
Across the length and breadth of this terrestrial sphere there are untold indigenous and tribal religions that, in the sprinkling of ashes, there is found some recompense. To burn, to sacrifice, and to immerse oneself in ash there is an attempt at reckoning. Largely symbolic, to be sure, but symbols are endemic to the human race.
Cultural differences of contexts and time aside, there is a universality to the nagging feeling that all is not well, and that there is some inevitability towards which we are all hurtling.
Still, the words echo back: “Remember, O man, that you are dust…”
This morning I knelt in a sanctuary as minister pressed an ashen finger upon my forehead, drawing a rough-hewn image of a cross. There is no tabula rasa to be found. For I hope that the image of the Cross is seared harder into my conscience, than the transient image found upon the surly outer visage.
“…and to dust you shall return,” the echoes continue.
Hopefully, I am not counted as a cynic for stating that we live in dark times. I imagine that it would be a comparable to someone pointing out that the summertime is hot and the winter is cold, more a statement of the obvious rather than a profound insight, for all the times of human history have been plagued with some manner of darkness.
Since the fall of man, our world has remained locked in a perpetual circle of joy and despair, of accomplishment and tragedy. The same hospital where a new child is born, also bears the sorrow of an aged loved one who breathes their last.
The smudged mark shines in the growing glow of the burgeoning morning sunlight, and I remember that I was born with the fire of life, to carry for a little while before it too is extinguished…
…until that moment, I must carry the fire. I must carry the fire.
As I gaze into the mirror glass I see a man ambling along into his third decade, fuzzy-chinned and ashen-haired. My thoughts dance backward into time, when my countenance was that of a child, and a tiny gray cross adorned my small pale face.
Time holds me in its thrall; one day fades so innocuously into the next that it is easy to let them slip through my fingers. This ritual chastens me, reminds of the humiliating fragility of my time.
My hands touch the cold water flowing from the sink and I wipe away the mark upon my brow, concealing a far deeper mark found yet within.
Deep within and deeper yet, the rankling shaft of conscience hide, quick let the swelling eye forget the tears that in the heart abide.