If it hasn’t all been left on my pillow, I will wake up this morning with a gray smudge in the middle of my forehead: the remains of the powder used to mark me with the cross at last night’s Ash Wednesday service.
I’ve come to appreciate this start to the season of Lent, something that in my early and earnest Christian life I rejected as tired traditionalism and religious rote. In the years since I have come to appreciate that prophetic acts can be performed by people in robes just as much as those in jeans or fancy suits (depending on whether they pastor a house church or a megachurch).
Being marked with sooty residue like this makes you stand out, but in a slightly awkward kind of way. People in the grocery store can wonder, ask, or hand you a tissue. There may be an opportunity to explain, or there may not; the rite isn’t fundamentally a witnessing tool, after all.
So until the ashes fade away, I am left with the possibility that people might see me and not understand. And I don’t like to be misunderstood. The ash-head is very different to the rather smug Christian face I typically like to present: ordered, perfect, in control. I’ve got Jesus, and I have all the answers.
The ashes are a truer reflection of my life: a bit messy, despite my best efforts to look good. I wonder whether, although it may make me feel uncomfortable, the ash face isn’t a bit more appealing to others than a Got Jesus? tee-shirt.
Being marked with ashes is not only a small surrender of my pride. It also orients me to Easter, whose true joy can only be experienced when you spend some time pondering the darkness which its light expels. For me Lent isn’t about wallowing in self-condemnation, but reflecting and recalibrating my smugometer.
You see, to be honest, there are times when I think that God did pretty well to get me on His team. The Ash Wednesday smudge, like the Hindus’ third eye, reminds me that God sees everything. I may have gotten many of the externals down—don’t smoke, don’t swear (out loud), don’t give other motorists the finger—but the internals are still a work in progress.
Like odd socks or an accidentally turned-up shirt collar, the smudge gives other people a glimpse at the truer, less-than-picture-perfect me. More importantly, it reminds me that’s who God sees all the time. And He still picked my for His team. Something worth looking forward to celebrate.