It is Lent.In the Episcopal church, as in many others, we gather to literally mark the season with the "disposition of ashes." This year, Ash Wednesday was preceded by a storm bringing us several inches of snow. Many of us had been home on Monday & Tuesday, Mardi Gras festivities had been canceled and we had gone to work knowing that our Lenten fasts were imminent. The church parking lot filled. We greeted each other, our cabin fever relieved, the solemnity of Lent just moments away.
In the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6: 1 - 6, 16 - 21), Jesus reminds us that we should "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them..." So then, why walk out of the church wearing a smudge of ash? Isn't that like praying "at the street corners, so that they [we] may be seen by others"? Our priest asked just that question during the sermon. No, really, he asked so that we would answer right then, right there.
Our answers: a mark of piety, reminder of our mortality, being part of a community, a sign to other believers, etc.
Following the sermon, the service continued with the priest reading from the prayerbook, "I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer." Kneeling, a cross of ashes was smudged on our foreheads. Marked. Known to each other as Followers of Jesus. Reminded of the cycle - from dust, to dust. I looked at my brothers and sisters, foreheads proclaiming their allegiance, there were so many of us. We prayed and then, we walked back out into the world.
The next morning I washed my face and prepared for work. The visible mark was gone. No one would know I'd had palm ash on my forehead the night before. I wouldn't know if people I met on Thursday had also worn the mark the day before. In my community, there's no secret handshake, no lapel pin, no special haircut to identify each other. My mark was gone, how would another Christian know that I'm one, too? I briefly visualized a glow that would happen when Christians came near each other, sort of like how the light in my Prius comes on when the key fob gets close enough. Wouldn't that be great?
Should the short-lived ashen mark be just an outward sign of the long-term mark on my heart? The inward grace of God's unconditional love shining from me, not so unlike the light in my Prius? I have these forty days of Lent to contemplate the incredible gift of Jesus' life among us, contemplate His teaching me to keep the divine light lit, teaching me to glow in such a way that others might see God's love and want to reach for it, too. And if my light fades, I hope that when you come near me with your own little key fob of God's grace marked on your heart, my heart will recognize it and my light will strengthen and glow brighter once again.