Ash Wednesday is a day of contradictions. Has it ever struck you as strange that we come to church and hear the reading from the Gospel in which Jesus tells us to keep our piety a secret – when you fast, Jesus says, keep it to yourself. Don’t look miserable, wash your face and brighten yourself up and wear a smile – don’t wear your piety like a badge – so we listen solemnly to this then we go home with dirty faces and the unmistakeable badge of penitence. When I first became an Anglican my parish did their Ash Wednesday service early in the morning, so all day we wore the mark of the ashes for everyone to see.
It’s a contradiction of moods, as well. As a priest, the act of making the sign of the cross in ashes on the foreheads on men and women more holy than I am is humbling and confronting. The words themselves don’t seem to be designed for maximum reassurance. ‘Remember’, I say to the frail octogenarian and the oblivious small child alike – ‘remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return’. This is telling it like it is, isn’t it? We live in a culture that denies death, idolises youth and tries unsuccessfully to hide the fact that we are impermanent. We don’t even like to say straight out that somebody has died – they ‘pass away’, they ‘pass over’, or these days, increasingly, people just ‘pass’. Ash Wednesday causes us distress because it rubs our faces in our mortality, or more accurately, it rubs our mortality in our faces. Both our mortality and our sinfulness. Ash Wednesday informs us of the fact that we would like to pretend we are not aware of – that we will die. And the fact that we bring death on ourselves when we live as though we have forgotten in whose image we are made.
Ash Wednesday forces us to be realistic about ourselves. Our culture is not only death denying – the other side of the same coin is the unrealistic belief that we are in control of our own lives. This is because our culture has absorbed the ideology of individualism, the ideology that we are at the centre of our own moral universe. It’s been a gradual process, replacing God. According to medieval theology I exist, because before I ever exist, God knows me. The Age of Enlightenment drew the circle a little bit closer in and decided that I exist because I am the rational observer of all I see: I think, therefore I am. The Age of Self replaces both God and rationalism: I spend money, so I know I’m alive. But deep down we know that our grasp on reality has become shaky. We can no more pretend to be sufficient unto ourselves than we can wish away our own mortality. Deep down I know the moments in my life when I have taken what was not meant for me, placed myself at the centre instead of God, refused to be who I was created to be, valued things more than relationships, and failed to love as I have been loved. Every one of those moments is a sort of death. Ash Wednesday confronts me with my wilful neglect of others, my self-centredness, and the false images of the world around me with which I distract myself. And invites me to radically re-order my life – repent, says the liturgy, and believe the Gospel.
This is another reason Ash Wednesday is uncomfortable. Not content with pointing out to me that I will die – that I am not, in fact, the centre of all I experience – Ash Wednesday informs me that I must repent. The first part of the injunction comes from Genesis, chapter three, God’s chilling reminder to human creatures expelled from Eden. But the second half – repent, and believe the good news – these in Mark’s Gospel are the first words that Jesus speaks, his mission statement, the agenda of Jesus’ ministry, in effect. And they go together – our awareness of the ways in which we go wrong, and the realisation that in order to grasp the good news that Jesus embodies, we need to turn ourselves around. The words of the imposition remind us that we have chosen death, but are nevertheless offered life.
The Creeds that we recite in our worship are the key to how we understand this, because they remind us that our sinfulness is not the main thing but the faithfulness of the God who refuses to relinquish us. The mark of Ash Wednesday is not an indelible smudge of inadequacy, but a joyful exclamation mark, because the One by whose holiness we are created continues to invite us into new life. Genesis chapter three reminds us that the consequence of seizing the prerogative that belongs to God – eating of the tree of knowledge in other words, which is an allegory for placing ourselves at the centre of our own moral universe – can only be death. But it is a penalty that is subverted by God’s care for the human creatures whose presumption results primarily in a sudden uncomfortable awareness of their own vulnerability.
When the man and the woman eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the net effect of their new-found knowledge is simply this: they know themselves to be revealed, transparent, defenceless and naked in the world. So what does God do? God clothes them, just as surely and beautifully as, Jesus reminds us, God clothes the lilies and the birds. They cannot live any longer in the garden of naivety because they are separated from it by their own lop-sided and lacerating new self-knowledge, but as the following chapters of Genesis make clear, neither does the God who drives them out of the garden remain in Eden himself. Instead, God goes with his human children into the turmoil of uncertainty, and the bittersweet mess of sorrow and joy that we call real life. "This," writes Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, "is not a simple story of human disobedience and divine displeasure. It is rather the story about the struggle God has in responding to the facts of human life. When the facts imply death, God insists on life for God’s creatures". And so, says Mark’s Gospel: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news’. (Mark 1:15)
All we are called to do is to be who we are created to be. We actually only need only to be human, a simple matter of being in relationship with God and other human beings. And the story that calls us together and forms us is the story of a God who knows that we are imperfect and who refuses to stop caring for us despite our lovelessness. A God who comes with us down the corridors of our isolating self-delusion, and who never relinquishes the divine dream that the relationships that are our true purpose might grow and thrive and that we might indeed have life.
Ash Wednesday – the imposition that isn’t an imposition at all. Tell you what, when you get home tonight, wash off the dirty mark, put on a bright face, and smile. The all-too-human failures of your life are just another reason for God to keep working on you.