After Ashes

I hate washing the cross off my face. 

Some years I leave it on until the morning, waking up with ashes on my pillow, reminding me both that I am mortal and that I need to do my laundry.

This year I had to wash my ashes off twice.  Since it seemed strange to go to a second Ash Wednesday service still wearing the ashes from the first, I wet them down and said a quick prayer.  Knowing that I would soon kneel again, that my sin was ever before me, I rubbed off the shape of the cross but left some gray flecks to take with me into the evening service.

And later that night I had to stare in the mirror and wash it off for a second time.

That time was harder.

“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” I cry, “and cleanse me from my sin.”

But it’s too pompous to assert that I can do that on my own — how dare I scrape the cross off of my body?  Washing off the ashes feels like rejecting the vulnerability that the cross instills in me. 

So I marvel at my forehead in the mirror.  I wonder how it is that on Ash Wednesday everyone can see the marks of my sin, how I hurt other people and myself.  How it’s against you, God, you alone have I sinned.

This week Psalm 51 continues to be in my heart, on my lips, and in my churches:

“I know my transgressions…  you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment… indeed, I was born guilty.”

But I have trouble saying, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”  That assertion of forgiveness in God’s steadfast love—God’s abundant mercy—seems to be too much for me.

So I wipe off the cross, but it is still there. 
The outer symbols break into my spirit, leaving me with a broken and contrite heart.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

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3 Responses to After Ashes

  1. Katie says:

    I LOVE this. Love it. I think you’re hitting the nail on the head with the purpose that the liturgical calendar serves. Unfortunately, a lot of the symbolism of liturgy and days like Ash Wednesday is lost on me…for some reason, I often have a hard time connecting it with my heart, I think because it feels contrived to me if it’s not what I’m dealng with in my own life at that point. But the necessity of the cross in the face of our sin is so, so..beautiful. And powerful. And I think you’ve illustrated it perfectly here!

  2. Megan says:

    Just wanted you to know I found reading this to be very encouraging and uplifting this morning – thanks for posting! 🙂

  3. bgosden says:

    Wonderful reflection!

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