Why do we come here on Ash Wednesday? Why do we come now in greater numbers than on Easter? Why do we inconvenience our work day just to get a blackened brow that will embarrass us and confuse our colleagues? It’s not obligation that brings us—there is none. It may be custom, or habit, or maybe a touch of superstition. But it goes much deeper than that.
I think it goes beneath the surface of success in our lives. It reaches wholeness—that mixture of good and bad, success and failure, hope and fear—that belong to us all. It’s a sign of the cross we leave here with today. A sign of the life and death of one man long ago whose living and dying changed the world. Not the way we’d like to change it maybe. Not very successfully, not very efficiently, not in blaze of light, and not once and for all. The change that Jesus made was messy, dirty, bought at the price of hardship and blood—and it is unfinished. But it is not forgotten. Ash Wednesday intrudes on the daily-ness of our living to remind us of deep and sometimes dark realities. It makes a mark on our washed and shaved and made-up faces—a mark of death and a promise of unlikely life.
2000 years ago someone loved life enough to die for it. 2000 years later we love life enough to never forget his death. By carrying his cross on our blackened faces we refuse to forget him. And we refuse to forget ourselves, our whole selves, with our light and our dark, our ash and our fire, our dirt and our green growth.
Ash Wednesday ought to be a relief to us. The secret is out—plastered on our foreheads. We are not perfect. We are not all we would like to be. But what we are is enough. What we are is enough for God. Someone has loved us enough to die for us. The sign of the cross we accept today is a sign of our willingness to love—to love and to do whatever it takes to continue what he started.