On Ash Wednesday, churches hold services where we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads using ash from palm branches.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the season of preparation for Easter. From today, there are forty days until Easter (excluding Sundays, which are always for celebrating resurrection, not fasting).
Today churches hold services where we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads using ash from palm branches, connecting us to last year's Palm Sunday. This imposition of ashes is a sign of penitence and mortality. That is, it symbolises that we are both broken and dying, flawed and finite, fragmented and fragile, dirty and dusty.
As the mark is made, these words are spoken:
"Remember, O mortal, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the good news."
Notice that while both mortality and sinfulness are referenced, the appropriate response to each differs. We remember our mortality; we repent of our sins. Our mortality is not itself a fault, but part of our creaturely existence. We receive the breath of life, it is never ours to claim or secure, our life is always dependent upon a source beyond us. The call to remember this is the call to relinquish control over our deaths, to relinquish the demand that I must be kept alive at all costs, and so to discover the freedom that comes from giving space in my life to projects other than survival.
While being exhorted to remember our mortality - that we will return to dust - we are also encouraged to remember our origin and identity- that we are dust. Like Adam, we are from and of the earth (humans from the humus). Being dusty means not only that our life is received as a gift, but that we exist as a member of the community of creation, in solidarity with the rest of the created order. Although we are often quick to lay claim to human uniqueness, part of lenten penitence is re-membering ourselves within this larger sphere. This is both dignity and frustration. Dignity because we too belong to the ordered material world over which God declared his blessing. Frustration because we share with all created things a present “bondage to decay”. But our origin and destiny are bound together with the non-human world. Thus, to be smeared with cinders is to be humbled, and yet simultaneously to discover in that humility a properly human and creaturely glory.
So we remember our creaturely mortality, but we are to repent of our sins, to turn from our self-obsession and to discover the sometimes painful joy in meeting and loving others beyond the echo-chamber of the self. This repentance will make no sense unless it is accompanied, enabled and completed by believing the good news. Only the good news of the risen Jesus liberates us from the patterns of false behaviour that diminish our capacity for life and love. That is why the sign that is made in ash is that of a cross. The cross symbolises the good news of liberation: not liberation from being creatures of dust, but freedom from guilt at our dirty lives, freedom from sin and its false dreams, freedom from despair and so freedom to live as mortals, freedom to share in extending God’s hospitality, freedom to be truly human.
On Ash Wednesday, Jesus’ followers are marked as dirty and dusty, but the shame of the dirt and the frustration of the dust are both placed within the hope of the cross.