This last week — Wednesday to be exact — I was walking out of the local breakfast eatery, the Waffleshop; an S4 comfortably in my belly and I saw it. A smudge of black on someone’s forehead. Then I remembered, it’s Ash Wednesday. To be honest, one of the things I appreciate about the Catholic faith is their wise use of ritual. Rituals remind us and sometimes it’s good to be reminded. Rituals mark us and sometimes it’s good to be marked.
It reminded me of an Ash Wednesday story I ran across a few years ago. Pastor Rich Starr — the previous year — had decided that he wanted to keep the leftover plam branches from the Palm Sunday Service and use them on Ash Wednesday.
He’d read that some churches did that, and then burned them the following year for the Ash Wednesday Service. When Ash Wednesday arrived, Pastor Starr grabbed his palm branches and placed them in his charcoal grill. They didn’t want to burn, so he crumpled up some newspaper and laid the branches on top. That did the trick, but the ashes came out very chalky gray. He was disappointed. He had expected the ashes to be darker. “This will never do,” he frowned; “When I make the sign of the cross on people, it won’t show up. They need to be darker.”
He walked into the church office to look around. “Ink, wouldn’t work. But toner! That’s it! I’ll add some copy toner to the ashes. They will show up good and dark.” The service went well that evening at Prickly Pear United Methodist Church. It ended with everyone receiving their mark, the ashes in the sign of the cross. It was a new experience for the people, but they were good sports. Anyway, tomorrow the cross would be gone — washed off their foreheads.
Now, I don’t know if it was this particular brand of toner, or if it was a chemical reaction between toner, newspaper and palm ashes, but Thursday morning, United Methodists got up, showered; and when they looked in the mirror to shave or apply make-up, the cross was still there! They took wash cloths and soap. They scrubbed and rubbed. The cross was still there. They tried fingernail polish remover, but the cross was still there. They were marked for life!
So on the day after Ash Wednesday, all over town, while Catholics and Lutherans and Episcopalians merged once more into the ordinary world, United Methodists stood out, black crosses boldly marked on each forehead. Everyone who encountered them that day, on the street, in the café, in the stores, knew a United Methodist when they saw one!
It made me think. What marks me? Sometimes we stand out in the crowd for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes we didn’t choose to stand out in the crowd, it just happened, circumstances beyond our control. But what should it look like — if I am truly marked by the cross for the rest of my life?