Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down...

Ash Wednesday

It’s an odd tradition isn’t it?
To walk about with a darkened smear
in the center of our forehead
visible to all eyes but our own.

It’s supposed to remind us of our mortality,
our finiteness,
because most of us tend to tuck death away
in hospital rooms,
funeral parlors, and the back alley recesses of our minds.
But while we may be reminded in the moment,
when the cool sticky smudge is traced above our brow,
it doesn’t take long for us to forget once again.
Until an inadvertent brush of a misplaced lock of hair,
or a glimpse in a restroom mirror
reminds us that something is different;
that something is where nothing usually is.

When I was young it was harder to forget.
We’d slowly rise from our pews
and line up behind each other,
tugging nervously at our school uniforms
and craning our necks to see what was happening up ahead.
The man we called Father was bigger then.
Taller, wider, casting a shadow that kept us safe
and confined.

One by one we stepped before him
and felt the touch of his thumb upon our head.
It was foreign for me
to feel this touch.
Priest. Male. Authority. God.
It was humbling,
as it reminded me of everything I was not,
and I could not return to my seat
fast enough.

But a reminder of the touch was left behind.
For the rest of the day
we’d point and giggle,
our eyes darting from one face to the next,
noticing which marks were darker
and which were more grey than black,
noticing that some took the shape of an obvious cross,
and others were simply an indistinguishable blur.

The reminder stayed with us throughout the day,
through recess and Social Studies,
through afterschool play and homework,
through dinner and TV time,
Until our mothers wiped it off
with soapy water and kisses just before bed.

But now,
I barely have a chance to feel its presence.
Rushing to an evening service,
the transition to the darkened, quiet sanctuary
from the world outside
is jarring.
The rituals, the music, the liturgy,
the lining up to receive the burned palms 
from a celebration a year in the past,
all carry so much more meaning for me now.

Remember, from dust you have come,
and to dust you shall return.
The words sink in
as I hear them repeated
over and over again.
You are mortal.
You are finite.
You are made of the same 
ordinary substance
that God used to create the world.
And yet you are so much more.
You have been graced
with the ability to rise from the ashes,
and be reborn
into something new.

Sometimes I am the one
doing the repeating.
Slipping my thumb into the oiled ash
and marking those who line up before me.
A cross for one.
A circle for another.
But the words remain the same.
Remember, from dust you have come,
and to dust you shall return.

As I too receive the mark
I begin to wonder what it looks like.
Is it light, or is it dark?
Does it say to the world,
“This person is unique
because she bears the mark of Christ!”
or does it say to the world,
“This person needs to be reminded
of her own limitedness.”
Do I look as odd,
as branded,
as out of sorts,
as the rest of the faces
gathered around me in the pews?

As I exit into the cool night air
the silence closes in on me.
And I begin to forget, again.
At home I go about my nightly routine
and take my one and only glimpse of the mark
just before I wash it off
and retire to bed.

Lent is a season
of reflection and remembrance.
Forty plus days of looking inward,
and moving outward,
as we become intentional
about acknowledging our connection to God,
to each other,
and to this world
that was created from dust,
and to dust it shall return.

I sometimes wish
I could bear to wear that mark
for more than a few hours,
for more than a day.
That I had the faith,
and the discipline, and the courage,
to receive the mark
every day
for the 40 plus days of Lent.
To awake each day
and forget that it’s there.
Until I rub the sleep from my eyes
and look down at my fingertips,
and see the darkened residue
of oil and ash
that marks me
as a beloved creature
of God. 

1 comment:

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