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.