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The Dark Mark of Ash Wednesday

Posted: February 19, 2012 - 1:03am

As a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, I love the season of Lent. For those unfamiliar with Lent it is basically a 40-day journey to a specific goal. The goal during this journey is the annual celebration of our Lord’s pascha that is his Passover through death to life. This Lenten journey begins on Ash Wednesday. It is on this day that you may see people walking around with a smudge of ashes on their forehead.

For me, the smudge of ashes is more than just a dark mark on my forehead that shows I observe Lent but instead it has great significance to who I am. In a typical Ash Wednesday observance within my denomination, Christians are invited to the altar to receive the imposition of ashes, prior to receiving the Holy Supper. It is during this time that I, with assistants, apply ashes in the shape of the cross on the forehead of each, while speaking the words, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19).”

For those who are unfamiliar with this passage God spoke these words to Adam and Eve after they ate of the forbidden fruit and fell into sin. These words are a harsh reminder to Adam and Eve of the bitterness of their sin, which is, namely, death.

In the context of Ash Wednesday, the imposition of ashes reminds me of my human frailty and mortality. As I have grown older, my mortality has become clearer to me because I have seen family and friends pass away. I also have grown familiar with my human frailty as I see I am no longer in my twenties. I notice my body aches more and I cannot do all the things I had done in my youth. In addition, the imposition of ashes is a sign of repentance, sorrow and my need for grace. The shape of the cross reminds me of the good news that, through Jesus Christ crucified, there is forgiveness for all my sins.

To help me remember this, a practice I have adopted in recent years is to have the baptismal font out in the narthex, which is the space just outside the worship space, on Ash Wednesday. As I leave the service with dark mark of ashes on my head, reminding me of my mortality and sin, I dip my fingers in the water in the baptismal font and wash away the ashes. I do this because, as a Lutheran, I believe that baptism is a sacrament, which gives forgiveness of sins and gives eternal life to all who believe the promises God declares.

Once again I look forward to Ash Wednesday and receiving the dark mark of ashes and hearing the words, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” With these words, I will be beginning the 40-day journey of Lent. It is a journey, which will help me focus on the events of Holy Week and specifically on Easter Sunday.

• Mike Steckel is the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church.

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