Did you get your ashes on Wednesday? As you know by now, I did not grow up with much exposure to Lenten practices. Ash Wednesday was a concept I understood, but not from experience.
In my first full-time United Methodist Church pastorate, I was holding my first Ash Wednesday service. I gathered some ashes from my grill to use as a visual aid on the altar. I did not think they would be used. At one point in service, I said, “Now at this point in some churches, the people come to the altar to receive their ashes on their foreheads.” I did not make any move to offer to do anything with the ashes, but one brave parishioner came and knelt and then reached out and took the ashes and put them on his own forehead.
“Okay,” I thought, “maybe Methodists are among those who do this.” So I invited anyone else who wanted to come and everyone did. From then on, I have imposed the mark of the cross in ash at every congregation I have served.
Wednesday afternoon, I was at my wellness center on the treadmill, watching a national news network. One reporter from capitol hill came on to report and I thought, “That is a nasty gash on his forehead.” It was a while before I realized that it was a black cross on his forehead. He had been to an early Ash Wednesday service before he came on the air and now was unashamedly proclaiming his faith to a worldwide audience. “Good for him,” I thought.
I recalled one Wednesday night on the way home from Ash Wednesday we stopped for gas at our local convenience store. In the days before “pay at the pump”, you had to go inside to pay. So I went in to pay for my gas. The clerk looked at me and said, “You’ve got something on your forehead.” I had forgotten it was there.
“We’re coming home from an Ash Wednesday service,” I sheepishly replied. She looked at me in embarrassment. “I should have known,” she said. “I’m Catholic.”
Whether you practice anything special for Ash Wednesday or not, the question is, does it mean anything to you, or is it just tradition? There is something special about focusing, for a few moments, on repentance and forgiveness. The real meaning is in the heart, not on the forehead. But sometimes, we get a chance to simply and unobtrusively witness to our faith.
I applaud the CNN reporter who was willing to appear on-screen with the black ash cross on his forehead. I don’t know what it meant to him. But to me, it reminded me that in this fractured and broken world, there are many people who live lives of quiet faith. They may not be able to witness to it in their words. But they can by their actions.
And that is what Jesus tells us. “By their fruit (lives) you will know them.” (Matthew 7:16, 20) We may not know them by name, but they are part of a big family that includes people different cultures, languages, traditions and races. As the old 1960’s era chorus proclaims, “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.”