Ash Wednesday came and went like any other day. There was no service, no marking of our forehead with ash in the sign of the cross, because we were all pulling together to combat the spread of a new and more virulent strain of Covid 19. We stayed at home, and hopefully used the material I had prepared for the Ash Wednesday service. But just in case the day sped past without that ritual, I will be including the marking of ash on our foreheads in church this Sunday.
Marking our forehead in Ash is evocative. Ash is a symbol of death, of things burnt up, of destruction and lifelessness. It’s a reminder of our mortality – something we tend to avoid thinking about most of the time; a reminder of how fragile life can be. Walking through the blackened landscape after a bushfire is an eerie experience. All is quiet – the sound of birds no longer resound among the trees and the burnt trunks of eucalypts conjure up ruins of a medieval cathedral whose stone pillars point to an empty sky, and where silence replaces the sound of the monks who once sang psalms in that place.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a season inviting us to reflect and take stock of life, and to see how God brings life out of the destruction of death, and shines light into our darkness.
Jesus once said, ‘unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains but a single grain. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’
Our Christian faith calls us to be ‘glass half full’ not ‘glass half empty’ people. In baptism we are joined to Christ in his death, and the symbol of that dying is being pushed under the water where all that stains us is washed away. We are joined to Christ in his death that we might also be joined to Christ in his rising to new life. And the symbol of that is coming up out of that Baptismal bath or river to be anointed with perfumed oil that both gives us a freshness and radiance and a wonderful aroma which speaks of new life.
We are marked with ash at the beginning of Lent, but ash in the sign of the cross. The cross was above all a symbol of torture and suppression. It was used by the Romans to subjugate captures peoples, and was so horrific that for hundreds of years the early Christian church did not use it as a sign of faith. They preferred the sign of the fish whose letters in Greek stood as an acronym for ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.’ But in time the cross came to be seen as a sign of God’s victory over sin and death, a sign of God’s love for humanity – a sign of the new life given through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and a sign of God’s commitment to reconcile the world to himself.
Lent is about encouraging and giving fresh heart to those around us, strengthening the bonds of community, reminding everyone that no-one resists evil alone, and recalling that we are already reconciled to God in the cross of Jesus. Being signed on our forehead in ash should evoke in our minds the sign given in our baptism – of the cross marked on our forehead in oil. I believe that the single most important thing that would renew the church in our day is recovering the importance and meaning of Baptism. In baptism we share in Christ’s victory over death, our lives are hidden in the risen Christ and we are taken into the very life of God.
In baptism we are named, cherished and claimed by God, and gathered into a community marked by dignity, trust and welcome. Where our culture fosters the sterile illusion of individualism, the gospel teaches us that we are fully human only in community, where we are loved and love in return. It’s not always easy living in community where tensions arise and we can sometimes see each other as enemy not friend. But Jesus’ word challenges us to live out our baptismal calling to be a people marked by love and forgiveness.