Ash Wednesday has never been a part of my spiritual repertoire.
Up to this year I’d only ever attended Southern Baptist churches, and Ash Wednesday was never observed in more than passing. Because of that, I always regarded the ash-smeared folks I encountered with curiosity and perhaps a little bit of wariness. Rituals can be as empty as they can be empowering, and I wasn’t sure which Ash Wednesday might turn out to be.
But this year, at my new church – a United Methodist congregation – they held an Ash Wednesday service. It was simple and spare, and congregants were invited to walk through a self-guided tour: each “station” of the tour invited us to view Jesus through the eyes of those He’d touched in the Bible. At the end of the service, after having stopped at the final station – the empty grave – we took communion and, to my surprise, the pastor greeted us with the traditional “for you were made from dust, and to dust you will return” and smeared the ash cross onto our foreheads.
On our way home, we had to stop at the store to pick up a few things. We’d planned it before the service, not realizing we’d be one of those ash-smeared folks we’d only ever encountered in passing, and you know what?
Eyes went to our foreheads every time we passed someone. People looked and smiled and gave us a nod, or they looked and just…kept looking, or they looked and turned away. When we got to the checkout register, the clerk looked, too. And grinned. “I didn’t get to make it to my service,” she said, “because I had to be here.” To my surprise, she reached out and squeezed my wrist. “It’s good to see you wearing them proud,” she said. “It’s good to be proud of the cross.”
I was touched. And surprised, too. I’ve worn all manner of crosses and icthus jewelry in my life, and though occasionally believers have commented, it mostly passes unnoticed. Perhaps that’s because even non-believers can wear crosses; it can be an aesthetic choice as much as a spiritual one. And crosses are pretty common in our culture and have been for a long time. Maybe the ash is different because it isn’t something people see often, or because it’s still so explicitly and undeniably tied to a spiritual act.
Either way, the experience convicted me. Celebrating Ash Wednesday may not be for everyone, but for me it was a powerful reminder that I am, indeed, set apart for a purpose. That what Christ did should be the core truth and sole motivator of my life. And that the identity made so explicit in smeared ash – and in the Good Friday services and cantatas and sunrise services and Easter events that will surely follow for many believers – should be the most integral element of who I am every single day.
This season, as we look forward to Easter, my desire is this: to hunger for holiness year-long, and to make love the outward adornment that sets me apart.