I’m not Catholic, but I decided to join my family this morning for an Ash Wednesday service at St. Mary’s. Medically and spiritually, I’ve been through a season of dust and ashes so the symbolism of an ashen cross smeared on my ample forehead takes on special meaning this Lent. Cosmetically, I think the ashes nicely complement the regrowth of hair on my head. Pretty good color match, eh?
Radiation therapy didn’t quite turn my brain to dust, but it seemed like it might a few weeks ago. To receive this blessing of an ashen cross is a reminder and celebration of human mortality, and a sign of mourning and repentance to God. I understand something more about sin, and our need to reckon with it, for having experienced physical brokenness as I have. The Ash Wednesday ritual today was a visual, emotional reminder that I will one day return to the earth as dust, as will we all. Before then, it’s my task during this season of somber humility to confess all the bad things I’ve done and, in some cases, the good things I’ve left undone. This is serious soulwork.
While there’s no denying that Lent calls us to contend with our mistakes and selfishness, it’s also a prelude to a richer deeper life. A culture without faith is one that tries to deny and hide the reality of death. Acknowledging the reality of the dark and dismal side of life is possible precisely because as a Christian I believe that sin and death don’t have the last word. That smudge on my forehead is not just about gloom and doom; it’s also about a hope so bright that even as I reflect on my sins and on the decay of my body at the end of my life, I can look forward to the prospect of everlasting life in the presence of inexhaustible love.
There is indeed a time to mourn and a time to rejoice. For the next 40 days, I will be thinking and praying especially about the inherent humanness of sin and of redemption. Beyond that, Easter beckons.