Ash Wednesday services are new to me. Until last year, I'd never even attended one. But, as with most churches, we did it last year, so it's a tradition. Presbyterians are not the most liturgical people. On the scale of 1 to Roman Catholic, we're south of Lutherans, but north of downtown Baptists.
Years ago, in the days after Easter, the chairman of our Worship Committee strode into my office and said, "Here." And plopped a mason jar full of ashes on my desk.
I said, "Is this someone I used to know?" He explained to me that he, Mr. Worship Committee, had secretly taken home the palms from Palm Sunday and burned them, the way God intended, so we could use them next year, in our Ash Wednesday worship service.
"But, we're Presbyterian," I said. We don't do Ash Wednesday."
He pointed a finger and said, "Someday, you will." And lo, his prophesy has come to pass. Ash Wednesday has become a spiritual epiphany. I know that's mixing seasons, but the reason we have Ash Wednesday, is because we - as humans - get mixed up. We confuse ourselves. We forget which way is up.
How beautiful, how poetic, that tonight the ashes of our praise become the sign of our shame. Physically, tangibly, fingertip to forehead, the ashes remind us why we need Christ. Not as a celebrity. We already have too many of those. Not as a concept. The ashes help us feel, help us sense. They mark our hearts by way of our heads, reminding us how deeply we need Christ, not as a good luck charm, but as our Savior.
We can read the Bible story. Preachers do our best to convey it with our words. But to bear the sign of repentance on our foreheads, to feel the touch of skin upon skin, to know the dirty, oily smear that's on us and always so very near the surface. That's the message of Ash Wednesday, not just heard, but lived. Visible. For all to see. Well, almost all.
I forget things. Way too many things. Just ask my wife. Last year, I left the Ash Wednesday service and stopped at our favorite Chinese restaurant on Chapman Highway, to get takeout, to take home for supper. I went in and the hostess smiled at me, touched her own forehead, and said, "I'm gonna go, too, to Mass, when I get off work." Dear Lord, she thought I was Catholic. Johns Wesley and Calvin would both say, "See! We warned you about this!" And lo, their prophesies have come to pass. I think I said something profound and faithful, like, "Cool." Got my Kung Pao Chicken and drove away.
These marks on our forehead aren't marks of piety. They aren't checkmarks or good-behavior stickers for going to church in the middle of the week. They aren't evangelistic clothing to show off how we believe in Jesus and you should, too. The ashes are signs that we get mixed up. That we forget things. Way too many things. They're signs that we forget whose we are, and to whom we belong. They're signs that we forget that we all -- all of us -- are children of the Living God. And so are those who aren't here on this holy night.
I'm a dad, so I not only forget things, I like goofy things. One of my classic dad moves is when someone says, "Watch your head." I'll say, "I'm trying, but it's hard." You try. You have to have a mirror. Or a phone. The point is not that I'm crazy hilarious, even though I think so. To be a child of God and to forget that, to be a child of God and take it for granted, to bear the mark of God's love and not see it - well, that's sadly hilarious in a not-so-funny way. Of all the things to get mixed up about.
You can't watch your head. But someone else can. As church, in worship, we intentionally put ourselves in a place where other people can watch our heads for us. Where other people can look out for us, when we get forgetful. Where other people can pick us up when we trip over our egos, or follow some trend or celebrity too closely. Church is where other people can care for our souls, when we're smothered with guilt, or shame, or more likely - just full of ourselves, bumping into trouble, while we're staring at our mirrors, and phones. Church is where other people can tap their own foreheads, and say, I'm like that, too.
I looked at my forehead in the rear-view mirror. Honestly, whichever preacher should have practiced. It was more of a blob than a cross. But the cross isn't supposed to be pretty. It's alright that it's an oily, smudgy, smear. Because it's not a sign of our perfection. It's a sign that the messes we get ourselves into, the stains we bear without seeing -- It's a sign that even our worst can be remade into the cross of Jesus Christ.
From the cross, Jesus prayed for us. He said, "Forgive them. For they know not what they do." Amen to that. One week, we sing, "Hosanna!" The next week we shout, "Crucify!" And we turn around and do it again. And again. Year after year. Day after day. Our piety and our best intentions just blow up in our faces. Jesus takes the ashes of our own self-destruction. Jesus takes the ashes of our self-righteousness, and gives them back to us, not as more praise for him, but as a healing touch for us. He is the sign of our salvation. He is the mark upon us. Even if we forget.