The snow and ice we’ve both enjoyed and endured this past week not only led to panic in the bread aisle along with school closures, but to the cancellation of a what is in many Christian churches a deeply meaningful worship gathering: the Ash Wednesday services that mark the beginning of Lent. In New York City (where they know how to handle the snow), St. Patrick’s Cathedral was open – and welcomed over 50,000 worshipers through its doors on Wednesday. FIFTY THOUSAND. In one day. And a Wednesday at that!
Which rather begs the question, “What’s with the ashes?” What makes 50,000 sophisticated Manhattan-ites stop everything and get to church to have the sign of the cross smudged on their head in ash? Indeed, what makes millions worldwide do so?
Ashes are not an especially common symbol in our technological age, but they’ve been an emblem of mourning and repentance in various cultures around the world for many centuries, including the ancient Jewish and Christian communities. Since God told Adam that he’d come from dust and was headed back to it, the faithful have been employing dust, ashes, and fasting to mark some important truths we’d do well to recall. From Solomon writing that we should spend more time pondering our eventual exit than partying like it’ll never happen, to Job admitting that God was God no matter what and saying, ‘I’ve been speaking about things I don’t understand…I repent in dust and ashes’, to Jesus fasting for forty days in the wilderness while doing battle with dark powers, we’ve known we could use a dose of humility, acknowledging our frailty, brevity, and depravity. We are really good at getting it wrong. We should remember that.
Watching Coptic Christians, members of one of the oldest communities of the Faith, beheaded on a Libyan beach by ISIS, and seeing their lips form their final prayers of profession of loyalty to Jesus in the face of a brutal death, made this week especially mournful for me.
Thinking of the homeless on our streets when our weather is so frigid, or of children going hungry right here, reminded me of how much repentance we really need. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote that the fast God really wants is not so much for us to forego our food as to share our food with the hungry and open our homes to others.
Recalling that our planet is writhing in agony under the weight of our brutality to one another, our vandalism of its beauty, and our abuse of its resources, makes me face the stark reality that while laughter is good medicine, there’s a time for sober action too.
I need reminding that I won’t be around forever; that all over the world people are dying for their faith rather than killing for their faith (and always have); that my neighbor is Christ in disguise, and that always I run faster to the grocery to get my own bread than I do to others to make sure they have enough; that I need to stop despoiling creation and instead celebrate its joyful declaration of God’s splendor. I need the ashes.
The ashes are placed on the forehead in the sign of a cross. That’s really what Lent is all about: a forty day journey from today to Good Friday and Easter, to the cross and resurrection, to sacrificial love and new life. I didn’t get the ashes on my forehead this year, but I have them in my heart and I hope you do too. I hope we can all be thankful that Jesus made the journey to the Cross and Resurrection for us, and that we can all – by his grace and for his name’s sake – follow him on that path. Sometimes that leads to a Libyan beach. See you there people of the cross. Pass the ashes.