For many years, I became queasy at the thought of having ashes scraped across my forehead — not because they are a reminder of my own mortality, not because I dislike being called to repent, but because I couldn’t square the action with Jesus’ command in the Gospel for the day. In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes to task those who do things merely for show rather than for dedicated spiritual discipline. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” he says. Don’t sound a trumpet when you give alms. Don’t pray ostentatiously on street corners so others will see you. Don’t disfigure your face when you fast. Give alms, pray, and fast in secret, “and your father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Don’t disfigure your face. These words stuck in my mind while walking to the altar rail, while watching the priest’s trembling thumb touch the powder, while feeling the gritty scrape first vertical then horizontal on my forehead, like sooty sandpaper. Why are we disfiguring our faces when Jesus just told us not to?!
I was preparing a children’s sermon when I realized I had it all wrong. As far back as I can remember, I had not seen the ashes as anything other than a disfigurement, a liturgically pretentious sign that I was a pious person. Everything changed when I tried to explain Lent to a group of five-year-olds.
“Did you know that you have a cross on your forehead,” I asked, arching my eyebrows as high as they could go. They all looked back at me with those funny, squinched up faces that kids make when they are quizzical. Several shook their heads emphatically. “It’s true,” I said, “but the cross on your forehead is invisible.”
That got their attention. They began looking at each other’s foreheads. I continued, “When you were baptized, a priest took some oil and made a cross right here” — I demonstrated on myself — “and said, ‘You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.’
“That cross is still there, but you can’t really see it. It’s a reminder that you belong to God and that God loves you very much.” They nodded, open-mouthed. “Today is a special day because today we are going to use some special dust to make that cross appear on your foreheads again.”
On Ash Wednesday, we don’t disfigure our faces so others can see how pious we are. In fact, it’s just the opposite. By making visible again the cross that we received at Baptism, we acknowledge our impiety, our lack of repentance, our apathy to the suffering in the world. The renewed visiblity of our baptismal crosses indicts us for our indifference to our baptismal promises.
We look in the mirror and see a pair of lines, crude charcoal calligraphy. And we remember what it means to be a follower of Christ, to be sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. We remember that we have only a limited time on this earth to make a difference in the lives of those we meet, to show forth the love and light of God to a world too familiar with darkness. Disfigurement happens when we rub the ashes away and forget that there is still a cross written on our foreheads.
On Ash Wednesday we make that cross visible, if but for a brief time. This small, crudely drawn cross reminds us of another cross, the one that Jesus calls his followers to pick up when they decide to follow him. All too often, this cross also fades into invisibility, a wooden victim of our lethargy and misplaced priorities. During the season of Lent, we are given the opportunity to discern how to make that cross visible again.