Last night, at our Parish Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper, one of our younger parishioners came up to me with a question about Ash Wednesday. To be specific, he wanted to know why we put ashes on our foreheads. He didn't want to know where the gesture came from, and wasn't particularly interested in a theological discourse on ashes being an outward sign of an inward penitential submission to God.
He just wanted to know why, because it didn't make sense to him to intentionally make our faces unclean when it seems to him that he is supposed to spend most of his time keeping his face clean. Why do we do that?!?
I confess that I struggled with an answer to that question: "WHY?" Is it because I am MORE penitent today than I am on other days? That seems disingenuous. Is it because I want God to see me being more pious today than other days? That smacks of arrogance. It is because I am willing to take on exterior signs of pollution so that God will see that I am NOT that sort of person in the first place and grant me an indulgent "get out of sin free" card? Still not working for me as an answer...
I sit here dwelling on a long passage from Leviticus describing how the offerings of purification and wellbeing are to be made. There is a LOT of blood, and a lot of mess involved in following through God's instruction with regard to sacrifice as an act of atonement for sin.
Dealing with questions of what is appropriate behavior, and what might be called clean or unclean tends to occupy a bit too much of our time. In Mark, Jesus is confronted by three dramatically unclean people. His response is not to turn away. Instead, he turns toward them, and provides a cleansing/healing/restoration/exorcism that means new life for these isolated and broken souls.
The Gerasene demoniac is purged of the evil Legion and finds new life, in his right mind. He is cleaned, dressed, quiet and personable. That cleansing should be celebrated, but instead makes the people of the area so nervous that they ask Jesus to leave. They lack the resources to accept the change in someone that sort of cleansing presents.
The woman with the issue of blood breaks the Law in order to touch the hem of Jesus' garment. When that happens, Jesus feels power go out from him. He stops to turn and see what is being accomplished in this immediate moment. She is unclean, and yet Jesus sees her, and in affirming her faith he confirms her being made clean. He offers the same when he raises the little girl up off her death bier. Leviticus is clear: touching a dead person pollutes a person. In resuscitating her, Jesus challenges that pollution as well.
On the surface, all of Jesus' actions are unclean...and yet in those moments of connection real healing and restoration-even resuscitation-are being achieved. I come back to my young parishioner's question: Why?
My little parishioner's question still rattles around in my head. Why would Jesus break those rules? Why intentionally make yourself unclean? What point is he, and are we, trying to make?
Because with that little smudge of ashes, I am reminded openly, physically, that even though I am a sinner, God loves me. Even though I continue to stumble into sin and experience being "unclean," God is there with me to cleanse me, love me and lift me up. Why do I wear ashes today? Because I know God loves me, for while I am a sinner, Jesus lives and dies, and rises, for me to know what real forgiveness feels like. It won't be found in a smudge of sooty ash on a priest's fingertip if I won't allow God's redeeming forgiveness into my heart as well. In those ashes, that smudge, we remember what it feels like to be made clean....