I remember having a conversation a few years ago about whether or not you should wash the ashes off your forehead immediately following the Ash Wednesday service or wear them the rest of the day. A friend told me that you should wear your ashes with pride. This always struck me as odd. I see no pride in the ashes on my forehead; I see only shame.
The ashes are made by burning the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday service. On Palm Sunday we remember that the same crowd that joyously welcomed Jesus into the city, would yell “Crucify him!” less than a week later. The palms are a reminder that too often, when God “fails” to meet our expectation of who we believe he should be, we deny him and call for his head.
The ashes are a shameful reminder of our fallen nature. And they are a necessary somber note to begin the season of Lent.
A Prayer For Ash Wednesday 2010
Lord, as the ashes are pressed to our forehead, we are reminded that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return. And as we leave this sanctuary, marked for all to see, we are overcome with shame. Shame for the fact that we are sinners in need of a savior; shame that we have attempted to reduce you to figurehead; and shame because we can no longer hide our allegiance from the world.
Like St. Peter we have denied you, but now all will see that we are your children. You have marked us with the ashes of our misplaced expectations, our sinful desires and our unbelief. We are sinners saved by grace, and we can no longer deny it.
As we go out into this cold night, we simply pray, “I believe; help thou my unbelief.”
Lord, in your mercy
Hear our prayer
-Ben Reed, Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Fingernails scrubbed clean as latrines
in the army, this symbol
of a man dirties his thumb
with our skin, the powdery ash riding high
on his pores, not sinking in
before he sketches the gray
of our dirt-birth across a brow
we were born to furrow.
Listen to the sound of forgiveness:
the crossing of skin, the cult-
like queuing up to explode
in ripped whispers, "Lord,
have mercy, Lord, have
mercy, Lord, have mercy."
And we want it. And we take it
home with us to stare back
from a lover's forehead,
to come off in a smear on the sheets
as we roll onto each other's skin,
or to wear like a bindhi this medal of our not winning
each day we wake to the worlds
we are and are not.
And when we wake too early
before the light of just-becoming-day
sneaks in on us, and we stand lonely, deceived
into piety, scrubbing away the grime of our humanness
like fierce fierce toothbrushes on latrines
in the army, there it is still,
raw with our washings:
the human beneath.