The cross is still there

Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In the name of God who holds us, even when we forget that we’re being held.  Amen.

I have a confession to make.  It’s Lent now, and so it’s a time when confession is particularly appropriate, so let me confess to you all now.  Every year, on Ash Wednesday, as soon as the service has ended, the first thing I do, as soon as I’m alone, is I wash that black cross off of my forehead.  It’s not that I’m ashamed of my faith.  It’s not that I don’t want people to know that I’ve been to church – in fact, if anything, I sometimes get judgmental looks from people when I’m out and about and DON’T have the cross on my forehead.  Particularly since I’m usually wearing a clergy shirt – people look at me like I’ve done something wrong on Ash Wednesday if I don’t have that familiar smudge across my face.  But it’s the same every year: as soon as the service ends, I can’t wait to wipe it off.

The reason is one that has figured prominently in my own Ash Wednesday sermons many times through the years.  The pattern we have of reading THIS gospel on Ash Wednesday – where we’re told so clearly to beware of practicing our piety in public, and then moving from there to a ritual wherein we literally put a symbol of our faith across our faces – I’ve just never been able to square the two.  Hearing about, and preaching about the dangers of parading our faith for others, and then walking out of church with a symbol of our faith emblazoned above our eyes – it’s just always felt wrong to me.

So this year, when our Bishop asked us not to do a physical distribution of ashes – I’ll be honest.  It made sense to me.  And not just because of the pandemic.  It made sense to me, because it felt a little more honest and authentic than our traditional practice.

That’s not to say, however, that finding a way to remember our mortality at the beginning of Lent isn’t important.  It’s just that this year we can’t just rely on tradition.  This year we have to think about it a little harder.

But let’s be honest – we’re coming up on a full year that we’ve been living through this pandemic.  We have seen horrific images of hospitals filled to capacity, of refrigerated trucks lining the streets to hold the dead because the morgues were full.  I would bet that we all know someone, to some degree, who has contracted the coronavirus, or who has been sick with COVID – even if we haven’t been sick ourselves.  We’ve all heard stories from people too close to us who have had loved ones become frighteningly ill, and even some who have died.  And we’ve seen the ravages of the disease scrawled across the television in the form of numbers that stretch higher than our imaginations can take us.  This year we don’t need to be reminded of our mortality the way we do in other years.  Our mortality is on full display.  We can’t escape it.

And even if you did need to be reminded of your mortality through a physical sign on your face – you don’t need a black, ashen cross.  We all carry reminders of our mortality with us every time we leave the house.  It’s this: our masks.  They remind us that we need to be protected from an unseen assault on our bodies.  They remind us that we need to protect others from ourselves – even if we don’t mean any harm.  They remind us of the Christian duty we share to love one another – because what greater symbol of love is there than sacrificing something for the benefit of others?  I don’t think anyone likes wearing masks.  But we do it, because it’s the best way we know to protect ourselves and others.

But the biggest differences between ours masks and our ashen crosses are two-fold.  For one, it is easy to wipe off that cross.  We wear it this one day to “remember that we are dust, and that to dust we will return”.  But once this interval passes, the cross can go away.  We can go back to living our lives like normal.  The pandemic means that masks can’t go away so easily.  We each have to face our mortality day in and day out for this season that keeps stretching before us.  But the other difference is that the cross specifically ties our mortality to our faith.  So while I will admit that I won’t miss the ashes this year, I do miss the cross.  I do miss the way I can feel it there, as long as it’s there.  I will miss the way I see each of you, for just a moment, and the way we connect – physically – as the cross is drawn.  The way I can feel your skin and you can feel my hand.  That’s something we’ll miss this year.

But I do want us to share the cross together.  In a few minutes, in the part of the service when we would normally share the distribution of ashes together, I’m going to ask that we all take a part in doing that together.  Even though we won’t have ashes, we can still take a moment to feel our fingers on our own foreheads.  We can draw the cross and trace it on our skin.  We can feel the connection of Christ to our mortality, and we can share the traditional words that remind us that we are dust.  And that, like all things through all time, we will be dust again.

It reminds me of a story that I’ve often told about my oldest nephew when his twin brothers were baptized.  He was four years old at the time.  After the church service our family all went out to eat together.  There were aunts and uncles and cousins – it’s was a great time.  But after lunch, as folks were relaxing and visiting and starting to wander around, my nephew came and slid into my lap, because something was bothering him.  He said, “Uncle Jon, I saw the priest draw a cross on my brothers’ heads during church.”  I assured him, yes, that’s exactly what he had seen.  He said, “But I just went and looked and it’s not there anymore.  What happened to it?”  I gave him an answer that probably wasn’t terribly satisfying for a four-year-old, but it was the most truthful answer I could come up with.

I told him: “The cross is still there.  And it will be there forever.  We won’t be able to see it, but we’ll always know that it’s there.  And you have one, too.  When you were still a little baby, we all went into the church and there was a baptism just like what your brothers just had, but it was for you.  And after the priest poured the water over your head, he touched the oil, and traced a cross on your forehead, too.”  I traced a cross on his forehead with my own thumb, and told him that it was right there.  I told him, “The priest said the same words over you that the priest today said over your brothers.  He said, ‘You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.’  You can’t see it anymore, but we know it’s there.  And sometimes, if you pay close attention, you can remember that it’s there, and you can always know that it will be there, no matter what.”

Today, our Ash Wednesday crosses are like that.  We can’t see them, but seeing them isn’t the point.  Knowing that we are Christ’s own forever is the point.  Know that we are of this earth and that we will return to the earth is the point.  We were from forever and we will be forever.

We don’t need to see the crosses for that to be true.  We just need to be reminded now and then.  Today we are reminded.  Amen.