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After the Ashes

posted Apr 5, 2014, 3:46 PM by Nikki   [ updated Apr 5, 2014, 5:21 PM ]

I rather imagine we all have had those times when we just wish time would stop.  I remember after my grandmother died sitting in my study willing myself to stay awake, staring at the mantel clock, one that actually had once been on her mantle in her house, listening as the minutes ticked away.  Finally getting up and taking the pendulum off so that clock couldn’t run, perhaps in that way I would be able to make the time stop, very nearly convincing myself that if the clock didn’t run and I didn’t sleep and wake again tomorrow then nothing would have changed, she would still be alive.

Somehow I always have that same sort of feeling when it comes to the Thursday morning after Ash Wednesday.  I am always a bit uncertain about washing those smudges of black gritty ash from my forehead, convinced, it would seem, that if I do whatever they have done will go away as they get rinsed in sooty swirls down the sink.

I remember distinctly the very first time I went to church and had the thumb print of ash and the swath of a cross placed on my forehead.  I was in fifth grade and my friend Ruth, who happened to be Catholic, invited me to walk from our school to the church on base to get ashes.  I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about, it sounded preposterous and rather wild and undignified.  We certainly didn’t do those kind of things in the proper Anglican or Episcopal Church.   Why in heaven’s name would anyone want an outward and visible sign of the presence of God imprinted on their forehead?  And yet, either precisely because it sounded rather wild and undignified or because the thought of an outward and visible sign of the presence of God seemed like something not to pass up or maybe for a combination of the two off I went with my Catholic friend for my first imposition of ashes.

I can’t tell you how many times I have reflected on that first time.  I can still close my eyes and hear the Monsignors words inviting us to look our own mortality in the eye, to engage the creative process of coming up out of the dust and returning there again.  I remember looking in the mirror in the hallway bathroom once back at school and seeing there on my forehead the thumbprint of man amidst the ashes of God.

It is often said of Christians that Ash Wednesday is the one and only time when you can tell us from all the rest, that is those of us who bear the sign of a blackened cross upon our brow.  But of course that’s precisely how it should not be, perhaps that’s why washing that signifier off seems so difficult to do.  We are of course, each of us with our own unique thumb prints, the very real and wild, oft times preposterous and undignified outward and visible signs of the living God in our midst.  Even in the days and weeks and months that pass without any other outward sign our hands present the presence of Christ, the love of God to the world.  It is our hands that offer the world the promise of repentance and release, ours that offer the handhold of stubborn hope.

And so as you dip your hands into the mornings water to wash away the dirt and grime and now ash of the day before I pray that you recall the waters of your baptism, waters from which you were born; marked and sealed as Christ’s own forever.  I pray that you will recall the covenant you made with this God who breathed into you life; a promise to be an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace that is the presence of God.

--The Rev. Leslie M. St. Louis