On Ash Wednesday we are marked with the sign of the cross on our foreheads with blessed ashes. But what does that sign mean?
It’s not the first time we were marked on the forehead with the sign of the cross. It happened first at our baptism and as the priest traced the sign of the cross on our foreheads, he prayed: ‘The Christian community welcomes you with great joy. In its name I claim you for Christ our Saviour by the sign of the cross’. Then he invited our parents and godparents to do the same. But hang on a second!! What does it mean for someone to have a claim on my life? Do we not prize our independence highly? Is it not my life and mine only? Well, in a word, no. The life of the Christian is one that is set apart by God for God’s purposes. It means that your life and mine is not ultimately about us but about God’s plans for us. Of course we matter but here is the good news. God’s purposes for our lives is what will bring us happiness too and bring out the best in what we have to offer. This is what being ‘claimed’ for Christ means. Lest we forget, being traced with the sign of the cross happened again later in the baptism ceremony when we were anointed with Chrism on our foreheads. Several years later at our Confirmation, the Bishop anointed us again with the oil of Chrism on the forehead with these words: ‘Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit’. With this sacrament, our lives were both set apart for God’s purposes and given the gifts of the Holy Spirit to fulfil them.
On Ash Wednesday we were marked on the forehead not with oil but with ashes. From Old Testament times, ashes have been used as a public sign of penance. Following the example of the Ninevites, who did penance in sackcloth and ashes (cf. Jonah 3:1ff), our foreheads are marked with ashes to humble our hearts and remind ourselves and others that we are all sinners - frail, vulnerable human beings who continually fall short. This does not mean we are bad people. It’s nothing to do with a negative view of human nature. It’s just a recognition of what is true – that we are prone to pride and selfishness on one hand and yet are called to share the divine life on the other. As a priest I’m always struck by the number of people who come forward for ashes on Ash Wednesday who may seldom if ever come to Church. There is something about Ash Wednesday that makes us all the same and there is a freedom and fraternity in that. It’s almost like a pre-emptive strike. With an ashy cross on my forehead, I am saying – ‘yes, I admit it. I tired pretending. I’m imperfect and I want the world to know’.
A final thought on the prayer that accompanies the application of the ashes. As you received the ashes today, you heard one of two formulae: ‘Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.’ Conversion in the Bible comes from the word for turning around. Conversion involves a turning away from and a turning towards. It involves saying turning our backs on sin in order to turn our faces to God. It involves a decision on our part. ‘Remember that you are dust and onto dust you shall return’. We are all human, fragile with feet of clay. We sin, make mistakes and are getting older. We live with a sense of our limitations. One day we will die. These truths are not meant to scare us but free us. Despite being mere mortals, God made us with an immortal soul destined to live forever.
So after Ash Wednesday ends and Lent begins, bear in mind:
Not just who you are but whose you are. You belong to God who claims you as one of his own.
Allowing God to have first claim on your life is nothing to be afraid of. In his will is our peace and joy.
At our baptism we were set apart for a specific task or vocation in life. At Confirmation we were given the gifts of the Holy Spirit to carry it out.
You are not perfect so don’t pretend to be. Saints are sinners who know that’s who they are!
Every day during Lent, pay attention to the direction you face. Turn your back on sin, darkness, selfishness and all forms of nastiness. Turn towards the light, goodness, truth, beauty and God.
Remember we have feet of clay but hearts of gold. Though we are mortal, we are destined to live with God forever. Settle for nothing less!!