This year Ash Wednesday felt even darker than other years. A service that ends with ashes smeared on your forehead with the words, “From the dust you came, and to dust you shall return,” is always a bit of a downer. But our mortality feels a bit more real, perhaps, after a year that claimed a half million American lives to the coronavirus pandemic.
Preparing for the service, and still a novice at the art of ash smearing, I had to google some liturgical church sites to learn how to make dry ashes stick to foreheads. I stumbled onto a vivid image as I did. On their own ashes won’t stick. I was instructed to mix into the bowl of ashes a few drops of olive oil. Ashes and anointing oil mixed together will get the job down. This image grew into the short meditation I shared with the 9 people who attended our Ash Wednesday service.
Our earthly pilgrimage is also a mixture of ashes and oil. Ashes speaks to all the suffering and sickness, weakness and death. Oil represents God’s blessing, anointing, life, healing, and hope. We wish we could have the oil without the ashes, but I’m afraid that is not an option.
I’ve been revisiting the beloved 23rd Psalm this season of Lent. Hidden among the more well-known images of God leading his people to green pastures and quiet waters, protecting us in the valley of the shadow of death and restoring our souls, we find the sheep rejoicing in the fact that, “He anoints my head with oil” (Psalm 23:5).
But there I was standing in front of a church with a bowl full of ashes, anointing heads with a sign of our impending death. (By the way, my son told me after the service that my 5-year old was crying and afraid on the way home over my message of death and ashes.) And perhaps you are feeling a similar discomfort at this moment, so let me turn quickly to the second ingredient in that bowl of ashes.
All of these images collide in a powerful passage found in Isaiah 61 where Isaiah tells of the Messiah who will bring hope and joy to a world of ashes and mourning. He writes how the Christ will come:
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
In Christ we already have a foretaste of that crown of beauty to cover the ashes, and the oil of gladness to accompany us through the valley of the shadow of death and covid and cancer and unemployment and injustice and depression and despair.
As I sent our 9 attenders out into the night with ashes on their forehead, I urged them to remember that our ashes are mixed with the oil of the Kingdom, that “we don’t grieve like those who have no hope” (1 Thes 4:13), and we get to be messengers of hope to those who are walking around with ashes only on their foreheads (metaphorically speaking), who are in desperate need of the oil of joy that is available even now in Christ.
The season of Lent is intentionally dark, as we follow Jesus on his path of sorrows to his suffering on the cross. On Good Friday we will see a twisted crown of thorns on Christ’s forehead, ashes in the form of blood dripping from his brow. But those who have eyes to see will watch those twisted thorns transformed into a crown of beauty, and the One who was stripped naked and humiliated on the cross, is the One who wants to clothe us with a robe of righteousness and a garment of praise.
Right now, today, I invite you to take your index finger and make the sign of a cross on your forehead. As you do so, remember that cross on your forehead shall forever be mixed with the ashes of Christ’s suffering for you, and the oil of joy that celebrates His triumph over death and sin in his Resurrection and a reminder that we shall share in His Resurrection as well!
Grace and peace!