I have been an Episcopalian for over 25 years now and I still find Ash Wednesday to be one of the stranger experiences each year. I mean, I realize that liturgical rituals are weird when taken out of context anyway, and I know that Christian discourse sounds like gibberish to some. But at other worship ceremonies, you leave the worship edified and revitalized. When you leave on Ash Wednesday, you have ashes stuck to your forehead.
I remember when I was younger, I struggled with that situation, having ashes on my head for anyone to see. Other boys in my confirmation class would rub off the ashes as soon as we left the church. I would look at myself in every bathroom mirror and window reflection, seeing this strange, dark smudge. I knew it had to do with being marked as one of Christ's and that it was a reminder that we are created by God and we eventually return to God, but often I felt like I was bearing that mark like it was a target. I didn't know which person would take aim on my way home and start asking me questions that I had no good way to answer.
And this was in the evening, mind you. When I got into college, I had the bright idea to go each year to get my ashes in the morning, before I started my classes for the day. Truth be told, I kind of relished the countercultural piece of that; I let myself feel superior to my classmates. I knew most of them would go get theirs later that evening, since we were at St. Thomas and that was something they did, but I would stop in front of each mirror and check to make sure that my ashes were still in place. Check to make sure that everyone could see what I believed. I'm not proud of the attitude I had, but I tell it to you because it really only emphasizes that I've had strange memories from these years past on Ash Wednesday.
At any rate, my rhetorical question to you is this: what are the ashes? Are they only good for marking you as a Christian, complete with all the baggage that secular and religious society bring to bear on that term? Is it our "cross to bear" for that day? I ask these questions rhetorically, even though I have no answers to them, myself.
The scripture readings for Ash Wednesday are multi-layered (go figure) and so it's hard to say for sure that they'r helpful. On the topmost level, they have to do with penance; putting on sackcloth and ashes. But I would also contend that the focus of them is on what happens after the penance is made.
The Old Testament from Isaiah describes the way that Israel has been fasting and making themselves right by God and the psalm has us listening to the voice of someone who is grappling with repentance and trying to find a way back to the Lord. The Gospel (this year from Matthew) tells us not to be like the hypocrites, who make shows of their penance and they disfigure their faces when they fast (I really find it interesting how the scripture is so interested in fasting on this day). So what do we do in our tradition? We put ashes on our foreheads in order to show that we are starting Lent! How odd...
But, that being said (written), I think there has to be some physical sign of Lent's beginning. I think that Lent, more than any other liturgical season, calls us to change our physicality. Worship calls us to become more visceral. We're called to introspection and sacrifice. We kneel more because it's not comfortable, physically or emotionally. We admit the things we've done wrong right away in liturgy, hardly before anybody has had a chance to say anything else. We're not surrounded by the niceties we're used to, either. Gone are the gigantic frontals on the altar. Gone are the big hangings and the flowers. They're replaced by simple purple or white garments and the adornment around the sanctuary is now limited to stark illustrations of Christ's Passion; the Stations of the Cross. All of this because the season is echoing Christ's forty days in the desert, which echoes Israel's forty years of wandering.
"Austere" is the word that comes to mind. I think this season is about paring down the pageantry. I think it's about an austerity of heart, too. When I was younger, I was told to do away with something that I indulged myself with and then to call it a Lenten discipline. The austerity I treasure now comes from self reflection. I admit my faults and I humble myself at all times, not just when I approach the altar to receive Christ. And God forgives me, which in this time of absence, seems to nearly be overwhelming. I diminish myself and God tells me that I'm worth it all. That is truly humbling.
Perhaps I treasure this desert time because it allows me to prepare myself to receive the grace that is always streaming in from God. Perhaps I treasure this desert time because it ends on Easter Sunday, when everything is made new.