The practice dates to the the 6th century, when this day was called the “Day of Ashes” as Christians would have their foreheads marked with ashes in the shape of a cross. Ashes in the shape of a cross.
Ashes, because, well, you know: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” and all that. We don’t need much reminding. Those words in the garden in Genesis 3 echo for us: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ashes tell us of our mortality; the impermanence of this life; the frailty of our human form.
Some of us might feel we know this more than others. I was 25 or so (and rather boyish-looking if you can imagine) the first time I presided in an Ash Wednesday service, marking another person’s head with ash. I remember how amidst the crowd Wiladene Scott walked to the front of the line, coming forward that night with the aid of her walker and her husband, Ray, supporting her at her side. “Wiladene,” I said, “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and she peered up at me and sort of raised a hand as she said, “I got it.”
Some of us probably feel we understand it more than others. Still, I think most of us “get it.” We don’t really need any minister to tell us. We grasp what the ash is saying to us tonight. We remember what we’re made of, and to what our earthly form will return. The ash tells us, in part, what we already know.
But then it’s not merely ash tonight, but ash in the shape of a cross. It’s more than a smudge, without form or purpose. It’s more than a symbol, even. A cross is a certain kind of mark. A cross is more like a scar, or a wound. And we know about that, too.
Church is a collection of people who are wounded — people whose lives are marked by the pains of this world in all their many forms. As a pastor representing this church, my life intersects so often with people who know this pain.
The father facing the grief of a spouse’s illness, and trying to decide how to tell his children.
The parents of the brilliant child trying to give them the tools they need to process big feelings that seem to overwhelm them.
The family gathered at the Hospice bed of an aging saint, whose body is tired and who is beginning to slip beyond us into the mystery of God’s eternal care.
The person facing a recurrence of cancer and the limitations of treatment options.
The church member rehabbing after surgery and finding it’s turning out to be more complicated than first imagined.
And that was today. That’s the reality of pain, just within the radius and reach of this church. But, then, you get it. You know it. The ashes tell us what we already understand about human frailty and suffering.
But the cross might tell us something we so often forget: that we are not alone in our pain. That our suffering is not without notice and not without meaning. And that the limitations and pain we know tie us together not merely with a wide community of care and support — not merely with fellow Christians whose lives are marked in the same way — but even more with God who in Christ knows what it is to be wounded.
In his book, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen shares a story from the Talmud — the tradition of rabbinical Judaism:
A rabbi went to the prophet Elijah and said to him,
“Tell me—when will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?” said the Rabbi.
“He’s sitting at the gates of the city,” said Elijah.
“But how will I know which one is he?” the Rabbi asked.
To which the Prophet said, “He is the one sitting among the poor, covered with wounds.”
It’s not an ashen smudge. It’s an ashen cross. A cross telling us of the one who is known not merely through his power or might, but even more through his wounds. “Look at my hands and feet” he says appearing to his disciples in resurrected form “place your hand here… touch and see that it is me…”
Nicholas Wolterstorff was a philosophy professor at Yale who years ago lost his son, Eric, in a mountain climbing accident in Austria at age 25. He wrote a book some of you might know, Lament for a Son — a beautiful expression of his honest wrestling with his grief and his love for his son. This is what Wolterstorff says about that episode of Jesus appearing to the disciples with his wounds:
“‘Put your hand into my wounds,’ said the risen Jesus, ‘and you will know who I am.’ The wounds of Jesus are his identity. They tell us who he is. He did not lose them. They went down into the grave with him and they came up with him – visible, tangible, palpable. Rising did not remove them. He who broke the bonds of death kept his wounds.
To believe in Christ’s rising from the grave is to accept it as a sign of our own rising from our graves… but we do not lose our wounds… I bear the wounds of my son’s death. My rising does not remove them. They mark me. If you want to know who I am, put your hand in.”
Once those disciples touched Jesus’ wounds, don’t you think they started to feel their own bodies? To recognize their own pain? And where they felt they were wounded or scarred, it told them they were not forgotten or lost or wasted or discarded. It told them that they were like him.
Tonight, we receive the ash, and we know what it tells us. We get it. But let’s also receive the cross, and remember what we sometimes forget. Yes, that we are dust. Yes, that we are mortal. Yes, that we are frail, and fragile, and easily broken. And also, that we are like the one who even in rising, still bore the marks on his hands, his feet, his side, and his forehead. The marks we bear tonight don’t just tell us we’re wounded. They tell us what God can do with wounded people like us.