A friend of mine texted me early in the morning on Ash Wednesday. She works in downtown Chicago and wouldn’t be back to the suburbs in time for our 7 p.m. service.
“Does it still count if I go to Shake Shack to get my ashes today?”
She was just one of thousands of Americans embracing a recent revival of Ash Wednesday, that historical rite of the Western Christian Church, marking the first day of Lent by a sooty, ashy cross on the foreheads of men, women and children alike.
I remember being vaguely jealous of my Catholic classmates in elementary school, who got to come to school late and were branded together by their sooty crosses. Our service was later in the evening, and even when I tried to keep my cross overnight, it was always washed off by morning.
At a time when church attendance in America is at historical lows, why this renewed interest in a low-tech rite of years gone by? Even in Chicago, where morning temperatures hovered around 0, Catholic priests, Lutheran pastors, and Presbyterian ministers hunkered down near the Metra stations, holding jars of ashes and signs that read Ashes to Go.
For centuries Christians have been branded by the sign of the cross. From inner-wrist tattoos of Egyptian Coptic Christians, to ornate crosses on the arms of Lebanese Christians, to cherubic Irish Traveller children with bedazzled crosses up and down their flashy First Communion gowns, the Cross has long been a symbol of following the Way of Jesus.
There is something off-putting, of course, about spending thousands of dollars for a diamond encrusted cross that symbolizes a God who was anything but shiny and flashy and instead humbled himself, suffering death in order to win the ultimate resurrection.
This is why, amidst the signs for Ashes to Go and Get Your Ash in Church and all sorts of other kitschy reminders of this Christian beginning of the Lenten season of reflection and spiritual growth, when I see everyday believers and even questioners coming forward to receive their ashy crosses at Shake Shack and in the train station: I see Hope for the Way of Jesus in 2015.
Of all the trappings and Christian identifying symbols: WWJD bracelets and Promise Keepers T-shirts and Hebrew tattoos – the ashy cross feels most appropriate to a Savior who chose to redeem not by killing others but by sacrificing Himself.
By marking and identifying ourselves with a Cross of Ashes, American Christians are saying today that we are defined by a God who overcame death not by killing but by joining us in our death, so that in our reconciliation and redemption death might be defeated.
In our American opulence and relative security, when we put on the ashy cross we are saying to our brothers and sisters in Libya and Nigeria and the Middle East: we stand with you in solidarity. We recognize that for you to wear this cross may mean death – our life was won by Jesus’ death and the deaths of you martyrs – for Jesus did not ignore the ignominy and terror of death but rather experienced it Himself so that we all might have eternal life.
When we put on the ashy cross we are saying to our brothers and sisters in Detroit and Los Angeles and Fargo and Atlanta and New York City and Omaha and Salt Lake City and Seattle and New Orleans: I recognize my own mortality. I admit that I am not God and in this admitting I confess my sins: the times I have not loved God and the times I have not loved you.
Sometimes it seems the cardinal sin of American society is to admit our own shortcomings. We lie about our age, our credit score, our relationships – engaged in a never-ending competition to outlast others until death: physical death, emotional death, death of relationship – hits us in the face and we are lost.
The ashy cross stands as a sooty affront to the exceptionalism that says I will never die because I am better than you. The ashy cross, worn by young and old, rich and poor, black and white alike – symbolizes for some of us the need to remember our shortcomings and for others of us the redemptive power that even as we are surrounded by death – out of even this ashy cross will come new life.
I was marked by the sign of the cross and I heard Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
In a faithless, hopeless world – these words are words of death. The dust is death and life is meaningless and it will all blow away.
In a world marked by the Cross of Christ – these are words of life. Dust is God’s building block for life: once we were created out of love and dust and as we embark down this journey of sin, repentance and forgiveness – of ourselves and of one another – we know we will return to that dust again of love, a creative, blowing dust in which ashes are fertilizer and poppies grow on Flanders Fields and lilies bloom in Jerusalem.