“What’s that on your forehead? You’ve got some sort of smudge up there.” Thus, my first encounter with Ash Wednesday occurred. I had never seen such a thing when I was growing up. My church didn’t celebrate it. No one in the Midwestern towns I grew up in ever displayed anything of that nature. Maybe because it would have been too ostentatious. And if the big city Lutherans did it, well, they would have had the good sense to wash it off so as not to drawing attention to themselves. Which is something of a Midwestern rule. Don’t cause a fuss. So when I did see that Ash Wednesday forehead smudge for the first time I guess I could be excused for my religious faux pas.
Ash Wednesday is, as you might guess, about ashes. It is about dirt and decay and death. Remember you are dust, is what they say when they blemish you with that charcoal cross; remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Each of us is marked as the fragile mortal that we are. Rich and poor, old and young, great and small, all of us, we are all here just temporarily. And that black smudge on the forehead, smelling of burnt plant matter and oil, earthy and acrid, reminds us that death is a grim reality of life. And on Ash Wednesday, it smacks us right in the face.
It sounds pretty grim, I admit. Death and gloom. Sitting in the ash heap thinking of the end of life and all we have stand to lose. It’s no wonder that Ash Wednesday’s sibling, Mardi Gras, is more popular. Ash Wednesday gives you ashes, but the day before, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, gives you beads and parades and considerable drinking and girls gone wild. In some places you even get pancakes made by the Lion’s Club. I love Mardi Gras for the pancakes alone. Ash Wednesday doesn’t seem quite as tasty or quite as fun. But trust me, once you get to know this beginning day of Lent, I’ll bet you’ll find it every bit as meaningful.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of a 40 day preparation for something new. That something new is Easter. But before it comes, we want to get scrubbed up and cleaned up and get all those broken limbs in our lives to the curb so we can start fresh. Here’s how Ash Wednesday gets us started:
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That smudge, that mark of mortality reminds us, first of all, that we will die. It’s humbling, isn’t it? We aren’t immortal. We aren’t all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful and able to everything ourselves. We have limits. We can’t be super mom or super dad. We can’t make everyone happy. We can’t get all this done all by ourselves. We are human.
Secondly, that smudge reminds us, that others are human too. They are mortal and fragile. And we need to be forgiving.
Thirdly, that smudge reminds us that our lives will end. And we have such a short, precious time to enjoy this world. So what will we do? How will we live? As we go with Jesus on this journey to the cross and to death, maybe we will find we have things we need to let go of. Things that are dragging us down. Things that do not help us live and that we need to let die. Bad habits, bad attitudes, bad rationales for why we do what we do.
If we are ready, that smudge on the forehead this Ash Wednesday can be our declaration of independence. Because we are smudged with death, but we are marked by God for new life.