By Alan Sherouse
I recently had the slightest brush with my mortality. At age 35, I haven’t had many bleak reminders, but they inevitably come. Recently one came in the form of a small spot on my chest – nothing new for someone who grew up in the Florida sun – but this particular spot seemed to be changing. “How long has it looked like that?” Jenny asked, justifiably concerned but also ruining my day at the beach! There I sat, watching my kids play in the sand with the words “skin cancer” echoing in my mind. “Remember, you are dust.”
I’m relieved to report that all is fine. I found out just yesterday, on Fat Tuesday in fact, that spot has turned out to be non-threatening and superficial. But for weeks, then even months, I admit I put off finding out. I avoided it altogether. I couldn’t even look in the bathroom mirror after a shower, and when I did it was all too intense a reminder.
Tonight it’s a smudge on the forehead. We will see it reflecting back to us in the mirror, the rearview in our car, or the windowpanes as we go. If we resist the urge to wash it off right away, we will reflect it to others in the grocery store or gas station on the way home. What does this mark tell us? What does it do?
Most clearly, the Ash Wednesday cross is a mark of our mortality. “Remember you are dust…” it tells us. The word and ritual will always make me think of a friend at my former church – Metro in New York. A young professional living in the greatest city in the world, I’m sure you won’t be surprised that my friend knew how to have a good time, and her tired eyes as she came through the Ash Wednesday line revealed the Fat Tuesday fun from the night before. Still she came with all the rest – all of us walking at our own pace and carrying the evidence of our yesterdays. As she reached the front, my friend offered her hand, not her forehead. Perhaps in this prime season of life a forehead mark was too bleak. So she offered her hand, and that’s where I saw the faint outline of a stamp from the night before. A club stamp from a Mardis Gras bash hadn’t quite scrubbed off yet. So right on top of the Fat Tuesday club stamp, I outlined the Ash Wednesday cross.
Isn’t that the stark contrast that so often characterizes our lives? It’s like eating pancakes downstairs in the church hall right before draping sackcloth upstairs in the sanctuary. It’s what I feel when a child comes through the line to receive ashes, reflecting so much vitality back to me as I say to them “to dust you will return.” But isn’t that the contrast? The dissonance of this night, and of our lives themselves? Party and impermanence, feasting and fasting, water and wilderness, mountains and valleys – they are all right on top of one another.
So we carry this mark to remind us our vitality and mortality are always joined. Maybe it can help us to build our endurance and perseverance to walk through this world of such stark contrasts with grace and faith in God.
If we are people who enjoy some measure of privilege and stature in our lives, then this mark is an equalizer. It reminds us of all those for whom this valley of Lent is not a liturgical season or a spiritual elective, but for whom life is lived down below, out on the edges, feeling very far from what is happening on the peaks in our world. Maybe this mark can help us to learn to live more than 40 days in such places, alongside such people, repenting for just how uneven the terrain has become in this world God so loves.
Most of all, this mark reminds us of the one who has walked ahead of us, and now doubles back to walk alongside of us through this and all the uneven plains of our lives and our world. Jesus spent 40 days tempted in such a place. Asked to win this world with power, he resists the imposition on his identity and remembers what it means to be the beloved of God. Throughout these 40 days he teaches us how to remember the same thing. That’s why, even as his temptation subsides and the sun sets on the 40th day, he never leaves the valley. Sure, he moves around to different geographic locales, but he ultimately makes his life in the low places, with people who had never known anything else. He crossed boundaries to be with them. He wandered around in such low places, where so many people spend their lives. He could have ascended. But he entered the valley and he never really left.
It’s what ultimately cost him his life. That’s why the days of Lent ultimately lead us ever closer to a cross, reflecting back to us just how much Jesus was willing to do to help us to know the constant and universal love of God amidst the stark contrasts of our world. The mark of the cross tonight asks us what we will do with our very lives to follow more faithfully in this way.
Come next Friday, after minor dermatological surgery, I’ll have a permanent scar on my body – tiny, but visible. The mark will be reminder for me.
It will remind me how careless I can often be with this gift of God that is my very life.
It will remind me of the parts of my life I have neglected.
It will remind me of my pattern of avoidance of the bleak, challenging things.
It will reveal my reflex to look away from my impermanence.
For weeks, even months, I didn’t know what it was, but I knew when I looked at it made me want to be a better father, a better husband. It made me want to be more kind to myself, and to be more generous towards this world. It made me want to live differently. It was motivation to use this life God has given to reflect more boldly to the world the love of God I have experienced in Christ.
That’s what the mark did for me. I wonder if the mark on our foreheads might do the same for all of us tonight.