Notice the Ashes

There will be people today who choose to celebrate this day, Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent – by having ashes placed on their forehead.  Lent begins a forty day season in the Liturgical Church Year where people are encouraged to give attention to their inner journey of faith.  While this is mostly practiced by mainline denominations around the world, the rest of us can take notice.

The familiar Lenten question is, “What are you giving up for Lent?” That is a good question but it isn’t the real focus of the season. Giving up seems to direct the focus toward us; making self-denial and our ability to control life and our future, the actual goal. Yet, that was not the genesis of this season. 

Ironically, Lent falls when winter and spring vie for dominance in the weather pattern. The symbolism is stark. What will vie for our attention?

At some level we know there are the noisy din of voices that in some fashion shout that we are no good, ugly, worthless, despicable, or nobody – unless we can somehow demonstrate the opposite. These negative voices are so loud and persistent that it is easy to believe them. If we approach self-denial, or Lent for that matter, with the goal of proving that we are somebody and that if we just do a little more, then our efforts will only suffice to fuel the negative voices.

So what’s the point with ashes?

Ashes, from the burned branches of last year’s Palm Sunday celebration are placed on the forehead as a symbolic gesture signifying that we are human; finite and mortal. This isn’t meant to be morbid. Rather, it is meant to limit our grandiosity and help us stay in touch with the real human condition that we all share. Reminding us that everything we work for turns to ash in the end. It’s a challenge to admit that everything we worked for eventually turns to ash, but as a friend told me, “it’s also liberating. It frees us from the misplaced and destructive notion that we are defined by our achievements and lauded because of our accomplishments.”

Today, if you see someone with ashes on their forehead, take a moment to notice!

Spend a couple of minutes reflecting on the voices that get your attention. Be aware of what may be driving you. And, if you dare, stay with the silence long enough to listen to a still, small voice that may be calling you to something deeper, something more true. It just may be calling your heart to a real place of rest.

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2 Responses to Notice the Ashes

  1. Wallace says:

    Great post, Mark. I said some brash things about Buddhism this week and was reprimanded by someone. I took the criticism to heart and I’ve been plowing through world religion books etc. trying to prove I can grasp the thing as well as they could – and I think I was trying, as you said, to “prove I was somebody.” I’m still going to read up, but you’ve reminded me to put my pride down.

    Also, I thought I’d quote one of my favorite stoics concerning the ashes motif, Seneca says “Come now, surely you know that dying is also one of life’s duties? You’re leaving no duty undone, for there’s no fixed number of duties laid down which you’re supposed to complete. Every life without exception is a short one.”

    • Mark says:

      @Wallace – Thanks for reminding us of the futility of trying to “prove” we are somebody. Sometimes it’s obvious and other times we are quite oblivious to our subtle disguises. Glad you “took the criticism to heart” and because you did, you experienced awareness that otherwise might have alluded you.

      What a great quote from Seneca. We tend to forget that dying is one of life’s duty!

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