In the name of Jesus. Amen.
I’ve always found the ashen crosses on our foreheads kind of bizarre, given today is about humbling ourselves and repenting, not drawing attention to ourselves and reorienting our lives within the grand scheme of God’s design. Isn’t Ash Wednesday about taking the attention away from ourselves and remembering our relationships with one another and with God—not just me, number one, but we…
But doesn’t it seem, in some ways—especially when you see folks all over TV today with ash smudges on their foreheads—doesn’t it seem Ash Wednesday and the ashen crosses on our forehead are just a way of saying to the world, “Look at me! I’m a Christian and I went to church today!” Isn’t it just a badge of our piety, right smack dab in the middle of our foreheads? It’s always struck me as kind of odd, this Ash Wednesday thing that we do. It doesn’t seem to fit. So what’s it all about?
Piety is something that gets a bad rap—especially among Lutherans. We broke away from the Roman church in the fifteen century, and when we did, we shock off all the unnecessary pieties that come along with that way of following Christ. The rosary? Not required. The Hail Mary? Not obligatory? Confession before the mass? Nice, but needed. The veneration of the saints? We’d rather pray directly to Jesus, thank you very much.
A side effect of shedding these pieties meant that we also got rid of the practices associated with them. That is to say, we got rid of these pieties. It didn’t mean that we said you can’t do them. Not at all. Did you know there’s a Lutheran Rosary? Did you know that Luther felt that the Hail Mary was a good, laudable prayer—as long as it was understood within the context of praise for Christ? Did you know that Lutherans still consider private confession something beneficial and even encouraged in some circles? And even the saints…we recognize and commemorate the saints of every time and place. Did you know that Lutherans didn’t get rid of the saints with the protestant Reformation?
No—these pieties, and others like them, aren’t things that are forbidden for us, but they are things that we should be mindful about and careful when we do them. They are practices that we do to enhance our life of faith, to contribute to our spirituality, to fortify our own sense of connection with something beyond ourselves. But they don’t form the bedrock of our faith. They are nice to have, but not need to have elements of our Christian life.
But during Lent, you’ll see a rise in all kinds of pieties—whatever they may be. You’ll hear of people taking on this discipline or that doing that spiritual exercise to strengthen their faith. And while that’s fine and dandy, the problem is that people love to talk about their Lenten disciplines, they brag about them. But that’s not really the point of the discipline. In fact, that’s the exact opposite of the point. The point of Lenten disciplines isn’t to build ourselves up and say, “Look how great I am!” Lenten disciplines are about reorienting ourselves, or repenting if you will, turning around, to who we are and who God is.
So what’s with the ashes? Why such a visible sign on our foreheads, for all the world to see, if we’re supposed to keep these pious things to ourselves? Perhaps that’s not the right question to be asking ourselves…Have you ever wondered that? Perhaps the question doesn’t even start at the right place. What if the ashes that we put on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday have nothing to do with piety? What if it’s something else altogether?
How many of you have read Harry Potter? In Harry Potter, there’s this bird named Fawkes. Now, Fawkes is a phoenix. The phoenix is a mythological creature that exists in the realm of fantasy even outside of the Potterverse. According to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Harry Potter’s textbook for magical creatures, “The phoenix is a magnificent, swan-sized, scarlet bird with a long golden tail, beak and talons. It nests on mountain peaks and is found in Egypt, India and China. The phoenix lives to an immense age as it can regenerate, bursting into flames when its body begins to fail and rising again from the ashes as a chick.” See now why I asked you about that? The phoenix bursts into flames and rises again from the ashes.
The phoenix has long been considered a symbol for Christ and the Christian mystery of death and rising. When early Christian theologians first started wrestling with the question of who Christ is, they found an fabulous example in the phoenix. And they thought the phoenix was a real bird in those days, so they thought it was a natural example from God’s creation that pointed to the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. From the ashes, the phoenix rises again to new life, just as Christ rose again from the grave to life again.
But what’s that have to do with us?
It has everything to do with it.
It’s no coincidence that we mark an ashen cross on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. That cross is a visible reminder, not to the world, but to ourselves, of the same cross that is marked on us in our baptism. The same baptism that God promises us is not only our death into Christ but also our rising with him. Daily we are to remember our baptism, but we don’t daily draw a dark cross on our foreheads to literally see the mark of Christ that has been branded on us—the mark of the cross on our forehead. We bear upon our foreheads the seal of him who died for us. Ash Wednesday is a chance for us to remember, to quite literally see with our own eyes, that we have died with Christ. But just as the phoenix rises again from the ashes, just as God first created a man from the mud and breathed the spirit of life into him so that he became Adam, so too does God give us the Holy Spirit, the same spirit that raised Christ from the dead.
The ashen crosses on our foreheads aren’t there for the world to see. They aren’t there as some symbol of our good Christian piety. Those crosses are there to remind us that though we are dust and though we return to dust, we are nonetheless tied to Christ’s death and resurrection. Through the waters of baptism, we are united with him, not only in his death, but in his rising.
Those crosses on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday aren’t symbols of our piety. They’re reminders of our baptism—a baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. They’re reminders that God has a relationship with us—a relationship that even death cannot overcome. They’re reminders that though we can and will die, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That’s why we put these ashen crosses on our heads. We do it to remember and see that we have indeed been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.