"For me, at least, the peak of the service comes when the priest invites the congregation forward to the altar rail to receive ashes on our foreheads. Those of us who have done it before know that we are being invited to our own funerals."
--Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. At noon, I'll go over to St. Philip's and get a cross of ash drawn across my forehead. Then I'm going to lunch with a friend. It's always strange to wear your faith on your skin, especially in public. Usually I forget by mid-afternoon and then am mildly shocked when I look in the mirror.
All the great religions demand the death of the self. For someone as self-centered as I am, this is nothing less than irritating. I don't want to give my self up. I think I know where I am and who I am, and even though I'm aware that I'm broken, at least I know where the broken places are. I know how to hide them with artfully knotted scarves and long sleeves worn even when it's hot outside.
To shed my skin and go into the wilderness, to go without my armor--my list of degrees and awards, books read and books published; all those things that say I am here, I am someone, I am reasonably successful and you can't take that away from me--well, that's something I avoid like the plague.
But during Lent, we're asked to hand over our armor at the door. We're asked to make ourselves vulnerable. To give up at least one of the habits that keeps us moderately numb so that even if we know where our broken places are, we don't have to feel them.
The ashes on our forehead? A public proclamation that no matter how successful we look, we're dismal, dust-bound creatures. Our salvation? A God who loves and heals us.
I'll be honest with you: I've been going through a spiritual dry spell lately. I go through them periodically, and so far I've always emerged on the other side, faith in tact, in fact usually stronger and deeper. But no matter how bone dry my faith gets (and sometimes I fear it will turn to dust), no matter how much I doubt some days that anything like God exists, I always have a tender spot for Jesus, because he was friend to the widow and the tax collector and the prostitute--to all the people who couldn't hold up their badges of success and say, "I'm okay, I'm someone important, I'm someone you must respect." He loved the people no one else loved. He healed them and forgave them.
Some days, when I can't find my armor anywhere, and I feel all my broken places and remember the words that broke me, the loss or lack of love, the broken trust, all my own terrible trespasses against others, I realize how small I am, how much I am in need of healing and forgiveness. I remember that the way of Jesus is not the way of success and respectability (as we see in the Gospels again and again), but the way of love and vulnerability.
Even when I don't believe, I still find myself believing that. And tomorrow the ashes will remind me and anyone else who cares to gaze upon my dismal, forgiven self.