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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Your Forehead is Dirty

Yesterday I posted about the complicated and often antagonistic relationship that Baptists in the South have with Mardi Gras. I was pleased to see (in unrelated postings) that some of my oldest church friends were celebrating the day, fully aware that they were bucking Baptist expectations.
     Today represents another traditional celebration that is lost on many of my Baptists relatives - Ash Wednesday. This morning all over the world Christians gathered to receive ashes on their foreheads, put there either by priests, pastors, or peers. These ashes, made from burning the now-dried-out palm branches from last year's Palm Sunday celebration, represent the last great enemy of humanity, the shroud that covers all people: death. When those ashes are applied, the person imparting them says to the one receiving them "remember: from ashes you have come, to ashes you shall return" (or some variant) and makes a smudged, gray cross on their forehead.
     I realize that observing Ash Wednesday is even more alien to Baptists than Mardi Gras. In most cases, seeing someone at work or school with ashes on their head is a dead giveaway that they are Catholic. There is certainly an increased awareness and participation among some Baptists, but there is certainly not a level of participation that approaches familiarity among CBF, SBC, and other Baptists in Mississippi.
     There is so much power in the words and symbols of Ash Wednesday that I believe we are doing one another a disservice by not participating in this rich tradition out of ignorance.  The power of Ash Wednesday is in the reminder of our own mortality. Our society has been deemed a "culture of death" (see here, here, and here). We paradoxically live as though we are immortal, forever young, and impervious. We obsess over scenes of death and make shows with violent content the biggest grossers of the year. How interesting then, to have the words of our own mortality spoken directly to us - reminding us that one day we will face death for ourselves, that our insurance and retirement and education will all be dust. These are the most necessary, yet alien words we could hear at this moment.
     Yes, these words are morbid and strange to our way of thinking in America, where youth, virility, fitness, and liberty in all things are sacrosanct. By invoking the reality of death in the lives of otherwise healthy people, the Church performs the necessary function of demonstrating the necessity of Christ's Incarnation and Crucifixion. In fact, the entire Lenten experience is a reminder of our need for God. As a Baptist I hunger for deeper prayer, more vibrant Spiritual experiences, more clarity in Bible study, and more faithfulness in my dealings with others. The Lenten journey entices me to all of these things.
     The most profound experience of Ash Wednesday is in the great leveling of those who participate (what could be more Baptist than that?!). At one Ash Wednesday service in which I participated the person in front of me was much older. She looked me in the eye with the knowledge that her days were numbered, and when she said those words of remembrance I felt something sharp in my soul of the reality of death. When I turned around to impart the ashes to the person behind me, I found a small boy. I had to kneel down, look this little one in the eyes, and tell him that he, even he, was going to die.
     It still feels weird to walk around with ashes on my forehead, even for a little while. I am reminded, though, in every situation where I'm explaining the "dirt" on my face, that I am going to die, and that, by the grace of God, I might live again.

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