Today, you might be seeing people with what look like black smudges on their foreheads, like the people above.
And you may be wondering, “Why?”
I’m one of those people, so let me explain the backstory and tell you why I do it.
Today is what millions of Christians around the world call, Ash Wednesday. I’ll explain what Ash Wednesday IS, but I really care more that you know WHY.
• Ash Wednesday isn’t about putting dirt on your forehead. I know, it does look like that sometimes. That “dirt” is actually the sign of the Cross.
• Ash Wednesday includes a service at a Christian Church I attended today, and at the end, a pastor (might be a priest or lay leader at another Church) put ashes on my forehead in the sign of the cross while saying, “From dust you came, to dust you will return.” Hence the name for today, “Ash Wednesday”.
• Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent–a 40 Day period of time before Easter where Christians pause and do a bit of self-examination. Self-examination is about self-awareness for the purpose of change. Many Christians give something up for Lent as a way to remind themselves of what Jesus Christ did in giving up his life for us on the first Good Friday.
That’s the backstory. Here’s why I joined millions of fellow Christians today and put ashes on my forehead:
• They remind me life is short. I came from dust, and I’ll return to dust soon enough. Advertisers remind me time is short so they can get my money. The Bible reminds me life is short because God intends for my life to count. Here’s how Peter, one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus, puts it: “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall...” (1 Peter 2:4) True words.
• They remind me life is a gift. I can’t explain the phenomena of human consciousness (neither can the finest scientists), so I receive it as a good gift instead. My very breathe is a gift from God. Good gifts from great givers are things we treasure.
• They intentionally help me pause. With everything in such a hurry (Did you get my text? See my tweet? Like my last Instagram?), it seems we rarely have time to stop and reflect on anything anymore. Today’s service helped me do that and remember again God’s creation–me and you and this blue ball of gas and soil–are what matters.
• They point me to my purpose. I’m looking to maximize my life and make the most impact I can. Like my pastor says, I want to “be in it to win it.” I can’t do everything, but I’d like to do something that makes a difference in the lives of other people. Serve the poor. Right an injustice. Help my neighbor. Do good work. Share my faith. And I know the fact that God entrusted these brief days of my life to me means God has a purpose for me. I’m holding on to that with all I’ve got.
• They aren’t about being more religious. Religion–the root word–means “to re-connect”, so it’s not bad to be religious (I guess unless you don’t want to be connected). But what I mean is that I’m not doing it out of obligation. I’m not doing it to earn God’s favor, earn the Church’s favor, please my grandma or my pastor. I’m doing because I am follower of Jesus, and I want to pause and listen for his guidance.
• They remind me–most importantly–of Jesus. We Christians are CHRISTians. Our very identity and name is drawn from the one we follow–meaning, Jesus is the pattern for our lives. When we don’t know which way to go, we follow Jesus. When we want to do good, we follow Jesus. When we need rescuing, we follow Jesus. When we aren’t sure how to treat our neighbor with dignity and respect, we follow Jesus. And Jesus Christ, in sacrificial love for humankind, gave the brief days of his life for mine and yours, breathing life and purpose into them.
And that’s why I have dirt on my forehead.