Signed and Sealed on Ash Wednesday
“Tell me about the ashes,” he said.” I don’t hear about it in scripture, and I am not sure I understand.”
As we reflected on the Invitation to a Holy Lent with its mandate about fasting, almsgiving, repentance, disciplined reading of scripture and attention to prayer, I was aware that Allen, among many, had decided that the marking with ashes was a reminder of mortality and the sinfulness of life. Lent was something that people needed, a season of deep introspection and remorse. And the words spoken when imposing ashes do remind us of the sentences in the burial office, “Remember that you are dust and to dust shall you return.” “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” I saw how brave it is to claim a marking in front of others, to show our souls in community.
We are meant to recognize that the One who formed us from the dust is the beginning and ending for our souls. We begin Lent with Jesus in the wilderness; we face our temptations. We enter the forty-day journey marked as those who do not know how much time we have to amend our lives, so we use the time we are given to be better followers of the One we serve. How can this time be more about God and less about our fallen humanity? I wondered. How do we hold them side by side?
I began to offer the oil for healing alongside the ashes. “Remember that you are from God and to God, you will return, ” I said as I traced the cross next to the ashes. I think that I began this practice in a parish where a friend was living with AIDS as a result of a tainted blood supply in Canada. This marking reminded him and other parishioners of baptism where they were sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever. It reminded them of times when they were in the hospital or suffering at home, and the sealing was a final prayer, a blessing, a claiming of them and of God’s care and compassion. It was pretty much a “both/and” for a sacred time. The marking with ashes is a claiming of us and my parish needed to take hold of the promise of healing also. Or, maybe I did. As a priest, I had been in the practice of taking the oil stock with me in my purse. Almost every visit I made ended in prayer and anointing, reminding us of the God who meets us where we are. Could this additional blessing with oil mark all of us for the healing work of the season?
In a small rural community, “up the valley” as they say here in Ottawa, I was a Sunday-only priest for a parish that was struggling to keep its bills paid. Glenn was a member of the United Church in town; his wife, Jean, was an Anglican who lived with him after her husband died in a Harvester accident on the farm. Glenn had recently had a stroke, leaving his right side without its usual strength. They came every week for worship but did not walk to the altar to receive communion. There were many reasons for their decision, some lingering wounds of church doctrines, some embarrassment at being on display, some sense of not measuring up. That Ash Wednesday I chose to bring the ashes and the oil to people where they were in the pews.
Allen, partly blind due to macular degeneration, offered to help me carry the bowl of ashes and the small bowl of oil as I made my way down the aisle. As I reached the pew where Glenn and Jean were sitting, I asked if they wanted the ashes and the oil. To my surprise, they agreed. “And who will mark me?”, I asked as we finished. “I will,” said Allen, and he traced the cross in ashes and in oil on my forehead. I saw that Jean was weeping. And she was not the only one.
I learned also that the mark of the ashes is not easily erased with water; with oil, the stain is removed.
This practice of mine was adopted by others, but that is not why I am telling you about it. I just want us to know we are deeply loved, and it is good to take hold of sacred practice that helps us remember that. There is more than one cross on our foreheads.
May we be blessed by the marking, the signing and sealing this year.
©The Rev. Dr. Linda Privitera