Reflection: Ash Tag

A Lenten Journey

“What’s that?” I innocently asked, pointing to the smudge mark on Matthew’s forehead.

Our North Camden team bustled into our weekly staff meeting after sponsoring an early morning pancake breakfast at St Paul’s Episcopalian Church. Pancake breakfasts were a staple in the early days of UrbanPromise.  This was 1991. Pancake mix and Maple Syrup had a special line item in our annual budget. And staff needed adept flipping skills to keep pace with the demands for those golden hot cakes.

“Father Martin offered an Ash Wednesday service in the chapel after breakfast,” he replied with a charming English accent.  As a recent graduate from Oxford, Matthew spent a missionary year with us. “They’re ashes he placed on our forehead.”

I’d certainly heard about Ash Wednesday. But for a Baptist boy from the west coast, lent was not part of our liturgical calendar.  Actually, we didn’t have much of a liturgical calendar. Christmas, Easter, potluck suppers and an occasional “revival” were our holy days. Religiosity of this kind was considered “high church”—always viewed with an eye of suspicion from us “low church” folk.

“Tell me a little about the service,” I inquired, sincerely interested in learning more.”

“He talked about the Lenten journey, modeled after Jesus’ 40 day sojourn in the desert. Father Martin urged us to use the weeks leading up to Easter to prepare ourselves.”

“Prepare for what?”

“Well, you know,” he counseled, “we need to reflect, fast, and repent to prepare ourselves. It creates space for something new to happen in our lives.”

This was beginning to sound interesting. For me, the 24 hours between Good Friday and Easter Sunday always seemed a little rushed for any serious internal reflection. Like preparing for for a final exam the night before.  It can work, but more often you’re left with a gnawing feeling more could have been learned. A 40 day runway seemed a more effective path.

“What about the smudge on your forehead,” I continued.

“It’s actually not a smudge,” replied my friend in his proper English.  “They’re ashes from last year’s palm fronds. As he placed them on our forehead he recited a verse from Genesis:

“For dust you are and to dust you shall return,”.

Only a kid from Oxford would use the word “frond” in a sentence. But the quote from Genesis seemed a little morbid. Not exactly a verse one might recite on the cusp of a 40 day spiritual pilgrimage, or grease-pencil on your bathroom mirror. Isaiah’s reminder that those who trust in God “ and don’t grow weary, walk and don’t grow faint” might be a better inspirational selection. Why start the journey to Easter reflecting on human morality?

The challenge got me thinking about one of the more sobering books I read in seminary—The Denial of Death, by the late Jewish American cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker. Becker pulls no punches.

Becker hypothesis’ that people are “...literally split in two: he (she) has an awareness of (their) own splendid uniqueness in that (they) stick out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet (they) go back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.” I warned you he didn’t sugar coat. The problem, argues Becker, is most people spend their lives distracting themselves from this reality. 

Humans, he continues, are “....drinking and drugging themselves out of awareness,” and spending their “...time shopping, which is the same thing.”  Becker believed that when we repress our mortality we actually fail to live deeply and intentionally. 

So those ashes walking into my staff meeting in 1991 were visual reminders that our lives are brief....temporary...and therefore so, so precious. Ashes on the forehead are the ultimate rebuke of a multi-billion dollar cosmetic industry that sells a myth of immortality. So embracing this honest Lenten message can lead you and me to a life-giving sense of humility, gratitude and urgency.  For dust we dust we will return. The Bible doesn’t lie.

This past year has taught me that nothing can be taken for granted. I’m sure you stand in a similar place. Watching friends and friends of friends lose family members to this hideous pandemic acutely reminds me that our time to dance and sing on this planet is brief....and everyday a sacred gift. Mortality is part of the human package. Without it’s nagging, uncomfortable reminder we may wake up one day and say, “Where did my time go?”

So Jesus takes a detour to the desert for 40 days—40 days to confront the temptations that come to all us mortals who struggle to accept the truth that we’ll return to ash, that we’re ultimately all equal in the eyes of God and that abundant life arrives the day we no longer need to be the center of the universe. Sounds like a journey worthy of our attention. Let’s begin.

PS. If you want to write Bruce with a comment or question during this Lenten series, feel free to email him