Today, Christians around the world will likely have someone come up to them at some point and say just that, noticing the dark smudge on a forehead. The reason, of course, is because today is Ash Wednesday — the day that marks the beginning of the season of Lent.
Many Christians — and many preachers for that matter! — have noticed the odd incongruity of the practices surrounding Ash Wednesday. In many churches, the Gospel reading includes Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 6: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.” Then, we all come up to the altar rail to have our faces disfigured by a smudged ashen cross — proclaiming to the world that we are fasting.
And let’s be clear, if the ashes any Christian receives upon their forehead are worn as a symbol of pride in their piety, they should indeed wash those ashes off straightaway rather than fall victim to the sins of pride and self-righteousness. However, if the ashes upon your head make you look a bit silly, if they make others inquire after your spiritual life curiously, if they provoke within the wearer the willingness to say openly and honestly, “I wear these ashes because I am a sinner and, through God’s love, I’m trying to do better” — well, then I think the ashes might indeed serve a deep and important purpose.
Because far too often the church pretends to be a place where everyone has it all put together. Rarely do individual Christians stand up and repent of their sins. Even more rarely does the church as a corporate body stand up and repent of her sins.
It reminds me of a story Donald Miller told in his book, “Blue Like Jazz,” when the Christians in his group set up a confession booth in the midst of a gloriously hedonistic university festival. Revelers would giggle and go inside, only to have the Christians present confess to the revelers the sins of the church and to ask their forgiveness. People would leave struck and confused, completely unused to hearing religious people say they have been wrong, and to say so in specific ways.
I participated in something similar a few years ago at the Grand Rapids Pride festival. I attended with a group of other Christians who wore T-shirts proclaiming, “I’m sorry.” We were there as a public witness, a public apology for the way the church has harmed and demeaned LGBTQ people — those with faith and those without faith.
Some people looked strangely at the priest wearing a T-shirt saying “I’m sorry,” thinking it must be a trick. But many people came up with tears in their eyes and said, “Thank you. I’ve been in such pain from being kicked out of my church, or told I’m disordered, or being told my love for my partner is a sin.” I gave each of those people a hug, telling them the church had gotten this wrong for a long time, and I wanted them to know that I apologized on behalf of the church. I apologized for my own failures in this area, when my own thinking was more rigid and narrow.
This is the sort of thing I think ashes are about on Ash Wednesday. The ashes Christians wear are not a symbol of our deep spirituality — or at least they shouldn’t be. The ashes are a public apology for the sins we have committed, the times we have failed to make manifest the love of God to our neighbors, to our enemies, to the world itself.
And I do believe the church has much to repent. We need to repent of our treatment of LGBTQ persons, treatment that has caused countless suicides and resulted in innumerable shattered faith relationships. But there is more.
We need to repent of our preference for those who look and think like us, resulting in Sunday being the most segregated time of the week.
We need to repent of our complicity in economic systems that rely upon people making starving wages so that we can have cheaper products and more comfort at home.
We need to repent of being more concerned with keeping a specific institution running than with being the bodily presence of God’s love on earth.
We need to repent of enabling leaders in the church to abuse and harass, and of not being willing to do the hard work of supporting processes that keep the vulnerable safe from the powerful and predators.
We need to repent of our silencing of the voices of women, of how long they have been kept out of places of authority, and how the loss of their voices among the clergy has diminished the whole body of Christ.
We need to repent of approaching the tragedy of abortion with language that has made untold women feel they are murderers, instead of people who were often faced with equally horrible choices and who needed a loving support while they made those choices.
We have much to repent. That’s what those ashes mean to me.
You might see me out on the street today, wearing my strange priest clothes, a funny hat and a big cloak, offering “Ashes to Go.” I do this so that people can be invited into this season whether or not they can attend a service, whether or not they have a church home. But I do this as well because, at the end of every rite, after I’ve imposed ashes and we’ve prayed together, I ask the person who stopped to “Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.”
I stand on the street because I need your prayers as I seek to be more faithful to God’s love in my own life.
The church often needs your forgiveness as much as you need God’s. This is what Lent is truly all about. God’s love is waiting for all of us in this Holy Season, but we must have the courage to turn to God and say, “I’ve done wrong. We’ve done wrong. And we are ready to change.”
About the writer: The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at www.sjegh.com.