Two years ago on Ash Wednesday, I had an early appointment to pick up my car from a repair job. As I stood waiting for my vehicle, I saw a man walk in with an ashen cross on his forehead. Obviously he had been to a morning Mass for Ash Wednesday. But one of the service technicians looked at him and said, “You’ve got some dirt on your forehead there.” The technician apparently was unaware of what day it was, so the ashes just looked like dirt accidentally smudged on the man’s forehead. And that’s not where dirt belongs. Dirt does not belong on the head. It’s supposed to be on the ground, kept away from our heads and hands.
And, really, that’s what these ashes are: dirt.
The social anthropologist Mary Douglas in her book, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Routledge, 1966), calls dirt any material which is “out of place.” Dirt is a sign of disorder, an indication that the pattern is spoiled. I remember the fireplace in the house in which I grew up. No one wanted the dirty task of cleaning out the ashes. They fly everywhere. They spoil your clean clothes, the carpet, your hands. Ashes are formless, non-differentiated. They are a symbol of death and decay.
Our society does not like to think about death.
We do everything we can to keep death and decay at bay. We try to present a clean face to the world through our Facebook pictures, our Tweets, our status updates. It’s important to show that we are happy, that life is in order. Our consumer capitalist system is constructed around the task of selling you products to keep life upbeat, exciting, driven, sweet, delicious, and growing.
But the reality is that dirt and death, loss and sorrow are an integral part of our lives.
That’s why a ritual like Ash Wednesday is so important – because it fuses together two very powerful symbols: ashes and the cross.
Ashes are the opposite of fire. Ashes are cold, dead, unformed. They are the end result of fire that has burned. The cross is death, destruction, injustice, hatred. It is the opposite of birth, life, nurturing, forgiveness and love.
When we bring these two symbols together, the two realms are bridged and sacredness happens. That sacredness is inscribed right onto your skin.
Douglas pointed out that, “Ambiguous symbols can be used in ritual for the same ends as they are used in poetry and mythology, to enrich meaning or to call attention to other levels of existence. . . Ritual, by using symbols of anomaly, can incorporate evil and death along with life and goodness, into a single, grand unifying pattern,” (Douglas, 41).
That’s what this symbol of the ashen cross does. It provides a frame in which to understand death and life, past and present.
Douglas reminds us that ritual “enlivens the memory and links the present with the relevant past. In all this, it aids perception. Or rather, it changes perception because it changes the selective principles,” (65). This ritual of marking you with a cross made of ashes links you to the biblical memory of your spiritual ancestors who covered themselves in ashes as a sign of repentance.
Ashes remind us that we are made from earth. And someday we will return to earth. Our span of life on this planet is so very, very short. A ritual like this helps us to ask important questions.
Am I really making the most of this limited time I have? Am I doing something meaningful with my life? Or am I frittering it away in shallow pursuits of ephemeral pleasures?
I said earlier that dirt involves disorder, chaos. But Douglas points out another truth. It is out of the formless chaos of dirt that creativity and new life arises. So ashes symbolize the power of rebirth as well. Remember, the ashes used to be palm branches that grew in a warm, sunny, tropical place. They smelled of greenness when we waved them in the worship on Palm Sunday last year.
In a few days, however, they dried up, withered and shriveled. In a ceremonial fire, we burned them and watched the fire and smoke rise into the night sky. If we had sprinkled them on the ground, they would have been absorbed back into earth. The nutrients would have fed the lives of grasses and plants and, in turn, insects and mammals, and even humans.
So we take these ashes and bless them.
We make them sacred to remind us that we, too, are part of the cycle of life begun by God. And God does not leave us in the ashes, but renews us continually with creative power.
That’s why a ritual like Ash Wednesday is so important. Because it allows us to have access to “powers and truths which cannot be reached by conscious effort,” (95). That’s why attending worship and participating in rituals like Ash Wednesday and Baptism and Communion are so powerful. They give us access to rituals of healing and wholeness.
These are all rituals that revolve around the theme of death and rebirth. We die to our old lives and reborn to the new. Such rituals have the power to remake us, reform us, and renew us.
Ours is, as Douglas might describe it, a composting religion. “That which is rejected is ploughed back for a renewal of life,” (168).
So I invite you to welcome the dirt and ash on your forehead. Embrace this symbol of death as a kind of shield against the false promises that create madness within us and in our relationships with each other.
Coming to church and engaging in these rituals won’t protect you from death, but it will help to keep you grounded and sane.
Embracing the cross of Jesus is embracing the truth of our fragility and vulnerability. It’s being honest about how brief our lives are, so that we can find meaning and make the most of these bodies and minds and relationships.
As you begin this Lenten journey, I invite you to release the false and empty promises. Let them blow away like ashes from the purifying fire. Take hold of the life-giving truth, even in the midst of the dirtiness, loss, and death that surrounds us.
In this cross is where we find the God we seek, hidden in the swipe of ashes.
“You’ve got some dirt on your forehead.” Yes. That’s right where it belongs.
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church (ELCA).
More of Leah’s reflections on ritual and liturgy: