Keep the reality of death always before your eyes… -The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 4
I love Ash Wednesday, mostly because I love the symbolic. On this night, a pastor wipes my forehead in the mark of the cross, and in that physical touch, that dirt spread, I can, at once, feel the depth my own ruin and still believe that I have been pulled out. In the midst of the ashes reminding me that I am from dust, and to dust I will return, I can, implausibly, believe that I have been reclaimed, restored, made again.
In this one mark on my head lies the reality of my brokenness and the profound goodness of what Christ has done for me in his sacrifice: the shape of the thumb brought down mid forehead, then dragged across. The cross is where I am found as I was really meant to be.
Tonight, as I sang hymns of my own sin, my own love and need for Jesus, my mind stretched back into the memory of my child's baptism. I replayed our pastor's voice: “August, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” I watched the memory of his hand marking my boy’s head in the same shape that sits on mine tonight.
I’m fascinated by Benedict’s charge to his monastic order that in the dailyness of serving God, we are to remember that our own death is coming, that it could be today. That’s what I kept dwelling on tonight, ashes on my face, in my seat while the congregation snaked forward for their own ashes. My husband was working in Atlanta tonight. My son was downstairs with his nursery buddies. I was alone in a church I hardly know, among people who are as new to me as this city.
What does it mean, I thought, to know that I am ashes, to hold death up to my face each day like I would a mirror?
I didn’t walk away from the service tonight with an answer, only a sense that there is some jewel in that, some strength or humility or power waiting for me in that question. Perhaps every time I walk into the bathroom—before I cringe at the age lines suddenly appearing under my eyes, before I check my face for remnants of August’s cottage cheese, or reapply lip gloss—perhaps I could see that cross formed of ashes, a reminder that I am dying, maybe slowly, maybe quickly. A reminder that I am being remade by Christ, moment by moment, into the woman God has always intended that I be.