What is it that we are actually doing when we mark the cross in ash on our heads?
For want of a better way of putting it, I think we turn ourselves inside out. For one day, we show each other and ourselves what we’re really like. We put a messy cross on our foreheads to say, publicly, ‘I have mess. I have sin. I am not right. I need help.’
Today is about honesty. About admitting that we’re not perfect. Admitting that there is much in us which, left unchecked, will prove destructive for us, for those around us, and perhaps beyond, too.
Ash Wednesday can be seen as a service that condemns, that concentrates on what is wrong. But as some of you may have noticed from what I tend to preach, I have this unrelenting urge to find good news in things, and I want to find good news in the ash, too. When you start looking, there’s lots of it.
The first bit is that this service doesn’t work so well if only one person comes. If I turned up to preside and nobody else was there, it just wouldn’t work. Why? Because the ash cross is a great leveller. It says, my sin is my own, but I am not alone in being a sinner. It’s precisely what we see in today’s gospel reading: the woman taken in adultery is not alone. Her sin is her own, but she is not alone in having sinned. That’s the first bit of good news.
The second bit of good news is that although this is the day when we tell ourselves and each other than we are messy people, full of dirt and sin and shame, the fact is that God already knew. The fact that we are sinful, that humanity as a whole is sinful, is not news to God. He sees us for who we are – perhaps God is the only one in the universe who truly sees us as we really are, inside – and he still loves us. Infinitely. That’s the second bit of good news.
The third bit of good news is that when we receive the ash on our foreheads we are told ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.’ We hear these words and we might remember the second account of creation in Genesis, in which God lovingly puts his hands in the earth and shapes a human being out of the dirt, breathing life into its nostrils. The fact that we are dust is testament to God’s creativity, and God’s ability to bring life out of that which seems dead. God has done it once. He can do it again. And again. That’s the third bit of good news.
The fourth bit of good news is that the ash cross is tangible, and visible. It feels real. It’s an action which changes us on the inside – the church would call what we do on Ash Wednesday ‘sacramental’. The classic definition of a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward invisible grace, whereas the ash cross is almost the opposite: an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible lack of grace! It means that our ‘sorry’ isn’t empty, but feels real. And that reality is something that needs to be carried forward into our thoughts and words and actions beyond our repentance in the service. The ash reminds us that what we do, our action, the things that people see when they look at us, and what they hear when we speak – these things shape who we are inside as well as changing the world around us. We have a lent’s worth of actions ahead of us that can help us become more who God created us to be. We may not be able to make good on all our past sins, but our actions and words can bring us closer to being who we are meant to be. That’s the fourth bit of good news.
And finally, the fifth bit of good news is that we can wipe the ash off our forehead. It’s not a brand, there for ever as a reminder that we are sinners. It’s a temporary mark, which rubs off to remind us that we sinners who can be forgiven. Whether you keep your ash on for the rest of the day, or wipe it off later in the service, there comes that moment when you remove the sign of your sin. At school, on ascension day, we draw a cross in glitter on our foreheads – to remind ourselves and each other that we are called to ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’. It’s a long way to go till Ascension Day, but that commission, to be the body of Christ, to witness to the peace which can, against all the odds, exist between earth and heaven, and to reveal the glory of God, starts now. That’s definitely good news.