It is Ash Wednesday and I haven’t seen anybody with a smudge on their heads.
Now, this is the South. There aren’t a lot of people who observe Ash Wednesday. Most people, if they go to church at all other than at Easter and Christmas, don’t do Ash Wednesday. The most common denominations are Baptist or Presbyterian, and they don’t play this game.
Catholics certainly do, and Episcopalians. Many Methodists do it as well. Lutherans for sure. But in the South, smudges are rare.
So last year I felt like I was in a special club when I’d see someone wearing a dirty grey cross on their forehead. It was weirdly cool. We were all Christian, sure, but we were part of a different batch of Christian who did this odd thing. Not better, just different. It was kind of like being in a club within a club. Maybe it was like being a 33rd degree Mason, versus a 32nd degree. We were all “in,” but some of us got the extra special handshake.
Last year I felt really strange, sticking out like that. I worked my normal shift at the library and had to be out amongst the public. Part of the game is that you aren’t supposed to wash it off. It is like wearing a cross around your neck. It is a visible sign of your faith. The irony is that one of the readings at the service is always about not making your piety known before others. Jesus said a lot about that.
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
16″Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 17″But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face 18so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
So maybe we are doing it wrong. Jesus tells us not to do it, and yet we do it. Jesus didn’t tell us to do any of this ritual, either. There is a lot we do in church that Jesus didn’t tell us to do. But I hadn’t realized this then. Then, I was doing it because it was something my church did.
It was strange to have a mark on my head, out in public. I’d wear a straight face and pretend like this Thing wasn’t on my head. It is hard to miss. Now, some people understood, but not most. Some just pretended it wasn’t there. Some didn’t even notice. Some would gesture towards their own foreheads and say “You have a bit of dirt on your head” and I’d have to explain it to them. Some would look at me, think about it, and say “It’s a religious thing, right?”
Sometimes they would say “Happy Lent” and I’d not know what to say. It isn’t a happy thing, on purpose.
In a way, it was a good way to tell them about the whole idea. I think that making Christianity a participatory event is a good thing, in more than one way. I think that people certainly need to live like Jesus did and treat others like he treated them. But sometimes, getting there can be hard. So a little bit of playacting is necessary. It can get things going.
But nobody that I saw was wearing ashes this year. Maybe they are all doing it right now. It is the evening, and it is common for some churches to have this service then. Making time to go to church before work or in the middle of the day is hard. Plus, not all churches have the staff necessary to have multiple services. If you don’t have enough staff, it is easier to have just one service.
Plus, if you have the service at night, you don’t have the dilemma – wash it off, or not. Nobody is going to see it except your family, and they all have one too.
But I kind of liked having the cross on my head last year. I’d have a weird kind of bond with people – people I didn’t know played the same game I did. A lady looked at it and it helped her – she said “Oh, that’s today!” and realized she needed to go to church.
While that isn’t the best way to enter Lent, it certainly is a way.
Ideally, we enter our Christian life awake, and prepared. Ideally, we plan for it. Ideally, it isn’t a rush or something we forgot.
But then sometimes God comes to us right where we are and surprises us, just like Jacob in the desert.
11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” 17 He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
May we all be ready to receive the Guest that is God, at all times. May we all be marked with the Cross in our hearts, and not just on our foreheads.