If you see people walking around today with smudges on their face, don’t worry—the marks are there for a reason. Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that begins the Christian season of Lent. In the Old Testament, ashes are a symbol of repentance and mourning, and Christians don them every year around this time to kick off forty days of Lenten fasting and prayer.
Lent lasts forty days because the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus spending that amount of time in the desert being tempted by Satan before he began his earthly ministry of preaching and healing.
In some services when congregants receive the ashes, the minister says to them “from dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” Our consumption focused and youth oriented culture doesn’t like being reminded of depressing realities like death, and many people are repelled by the sackcloth and ashes spirituality Lent represents. The great atheist lion Bertrand Russell once wrote, “When you hear people in church debasing themselves, and saying they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings.”
But the Latin root of humility is humus, dirt, reminding us that humility and mortality are tied together. In an America where arrogance and scandal is all too common and fear of death drives people to extremities, a service that seeks humility by reconciling us to our mortal fate might be something worth pausing over.
If earlier ages when life was even harder than it is today sometimes wallowed in a spirituality of pain and denial, perhaps our age commits the opposite error. Ash Wednesday can summon us to a more balanced approach, reminding us that there is a time for everything, a time to mourn and a time to rejoice.
In the end, though, Lent passes. Christianity is optimistic, holding that all the suffering of this world up to and including death itself, is the prelude to a richer, deeper life. A culture without faith is one that tries to deny and hide the reality of death; for Christians, acknowledging the reality of the dark and dismal side of life is possible precisely because we believe that sin and death don’t have the last word. Those smudges you see on some foreheads today aren’t really about doom and gloom; they are about a hope so bright and an optimism so astounding that even as we reflect on our sins and on the decay and the grave at the end of our earthly lives, we look forward to the prospect of everlasting life in the presence of inexhaustible love.