When I was a student at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., a worship service was held on campus in Boe Memorial Chapel every weekday morning. At those daily chapel services, Boe Memorial Chapel (which easily seated 800) would be only a third full of students, at most.
But on Ash Wednesday, that same chapel would be packed for the evening Ash Wednesday service. Students who never set foot in that chapel any other time of the year would feel compelled to come and receive ashes on their foreheads. Why? What is it about Ash Wednesday that speaks so deeply to us? What is it that draws us to have the visible mark of the cross made on our foreheads once a year?
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we humans beings are a fallen people and that we cannot get up on our own. Indeed, Ash Wednesday makes us aware of the fact that we need God’s help. We need God’s forgiveness for our sin. And above all, we need God’s unconditional love to see us through.
The Scriptures tell us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We also hear in God’s word that the wages of sin is death. When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden and were driven from it, God makes this very clear when he says, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.”
We hear those same words when we stand at a grave in the cemetery for a committal service: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
It’s a sobering thought that the scar of sin is a mark that we all carry with us. But as Christians, we know that sin is not the end of our stories. Thanks be to God, we bear another mark as well! Over the mark of sin and death, the sign of the cross is etched on our foreheads. We children of God bear the mark of forgiveness upon us.
In the sacrament of baptism, we receive God’s washing of forgiveness. Our old sinful nature is drowned and we are reborn with a new nature. The mark of sin and death is washed away and another mark is laid upon us. Our baptism unites us to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We are assured of this during the service of holy baptism, when a pastor says the person’s name and continues, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Indeed, when the pastor traces the mark of the cross on the person’s forehead, it’s a moment of grace.
This year, let us begin our Lenten journey by recognizing the marks that are upon us. On Ash Wednesday (Feb. 14), let us reaffirm the lasting mark of grace that is ours through holy baptism. And let us rededicate ourselves to be a mark of God’s grace in the lives of others.