Another Ash Wednesday, and with it the hope for a new beginning of the Christian life. This is my twentieth Lent already, and since I was baptized when I was twenty years old, that means that in another year or so--should God grant me to live that long--I'll be able to start saying that I've spent most of my life on earth as a Christian.
I'm thoroughly convinced of my own interpretation of Ash Wednesday, namely that it is public, communal, purposeful disregard for the gospel that serves to confess to God and to each other that this is who we have been all along, people who have heard the good news and received the divine invitation, but have not yet surrendered, not yet lived gospel lives. What else could it mean to proclaim the gospel that tells us to wash our faces when we fast and not to perform righteous deeds that they may be seen, and then eagerly line up to have someone put dirt on our faces with great solemnity and then walk around like that all day? I wear the ashes because I want everyone to know--and to remember myself--that I am a gospel-disregarding hypocrite. But within that confession is the hope for a new beginning, to do penance, to amend my life, to repent and believe the gospel once again.
Nevertheless, as attached I am to this understanding, there are other things going on with Ash Wednesday. One of them I didn't start to notice until I was a parish priest and was baptizing babies with some regularity. At the beginning of the celebration of infant baptism, the families are met at the entrance to the church. As the names of the babies are called out, the minister of baptism makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of each, inviting parents and godparents to do the same. With this, the minister announces that the Christian community welcomes her new member with joy, and that the child is 'claimed' for Christ.
It strikes me that this signing at the beginning of the celebration of baptism is the same ritual gesture that is used to give ashes. (I concede that this is not the custom everywhere.) When I receive the little cross of ashes, I think of how it relates to the sign of the cross I too received at the beginning of the ceremony of my own baptism. (Despite being twenty years old at the time, I was baptized according to the rite for children, long story.) It's as if that first sign of the cross, full of hope and joy, is now revealed again as necrotic, my first fervor having been burnt up and being nothing but weightless ash. The baptism that was to give me new life by burying me with Christ in his death has been foiled by the life of death I insist upon for myself with my sins and distraction. On Ash Wednesday I admit this, confess it to God, myself, and everyone else, and hope for a new beginning that I might prepare myself for the renewal of my baptism at the great Vigil of Easter.
Still another angle that comes to me on Ash Wednesday is its relationship to Holy Thursday. It strikes me that the ritual by which we begin the journey of Lent, Ash Wednesday, is parallel to the ritual by which Lent gives way to the days of the Paschal Triduum, the Mass of the Lord's Supper. On Ash Wednesday we insist on not following Jesus' practical advice on how to fast, but on Holy Thursday, in the washing of the feet, we take great pains to act out a gospel commandment that can easily be taken figuratively. We begin Lent with a direct violation of the gospel on Ash Wednesday and conclude with direct imitation on Holy Thursday. The humble service of the washing of the feet is the antidote to the hypocrisy of the dirtying of the heads.
As we begin this Lent, may we all come to know Jesus anew. In his saving humility, he washes the feet of those who don't know how to wash their faces.