Sunday, February 22, 2009
Last year at this time, a woman stopped me in the grocery store. “Excuse me sir, but you have a smudge on your forehead.” She said, “It looks like dirt.” I smiled and said, “I know. It is a smudge but it isn’t dirt. It’s Ash Wednesday in my church and we have this special service where our Minister touches our forehead with soot. “Strange custom,” she said. “It’s a reminder that we are human and vulnerable and though we might live a long life, our days are still numbered.” She shook her head. “Sounds depressing.”
In some ways it is depressing. Who wants to be reminded that we really are dust and one day it shall all be over and we will return to dust? Most of us would prefer to talk about the ball game, who might be the next American idol or if the Oscar winners satisfied us.
After my conversation in the grocery store I moved on. Later in the day I looked into a mirror and the smudge on my forehead startled me. Even after I washed the soot off I couldn’t escape the truth that we are all a marked people.
We need an Ash Wednesday to nudge us back into the reality that all of us are smudged with vulnerability, finitude and imperfection. People in 2009 need a time when we can stare into the mirror and remember that even the best of us is dust and one day to dust we shall return. A healthy dose of reality might just humanize all of us that call ourselves believers. We all have a dark side and if people discovered our shadows they would turn away. Such a reminder does not excuse our sinning but it should at least remind us all to watch our steps. Paul wrote to Corinth, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”
Come Wednesday we Christians will stand in a long line with people just like us. All of us are broken people, carrying heavy burdens and wishing we could forget that one day we really will return to dust. And yet we Christians kneel at some altar year after year and hear some priest whisper, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” But in-between that marking and the rest of our days, Lent holds out a promise. Bearing the mark of our sinning, knowing full well we are as human as any Ted Haggard or Alex Rodriguez or Bernard Meddoff, we dare to believe a hopeful word. We can be forgiven. We can move, burdens and all, back into the world working for peace and justice and trying to love one another.
Folk singer Leonard Cohen got it right, “There are cracks, there are cracks in everything—that’s how the light shines through.” Hopefully Ash Wednesday and these forty days before Easter can save us despite the cracks and help us be better bearers of the light.