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The first Wednesday in Lent never fails to catch me by surprise. The first time I run into a believer with the sign of the cross smudged in oily ash on his or her forehead, I am startled, then amused. I find myself once again suppressing the urge to look at the person with a straight face, gesture toward my own forehead, and say, “Hey, you’ve got a little something, right here.”

That probably seems sacrilegious. I apologize. It’s just that the practice of wearing ashes wasn’t a part of my religious upbringing, and it still strikes me as strange, even though I now understand that ashes are a sign of repentance.

But to a Christian who came of age in a postmodern “I’m OK, you’re OK” society, it feels a little counterintuitive to wear a mark as a reminder of one’s sinfulness. After all, believers desire to be cleansed of all unrighteousness. We’re told to exalt whatever is pure and perfect, without spot or blemish, and to abhor even the garment spotted by sin. So how did a faith that places so much emphasis on metaphors for spiritual cleanliness ever come up with a practice like having adherents intentionally mark themselves with smut?

I won’t try to trace this tradition back to its roots in Hebrew culture; even if I were scholar enough, I don’t think following that path would help get me over the oddness of the ritual.

What does help is thinking about why it feels so awkward to put on an outward sign of my sinfulness. Why is it so uncomfortable to admit in this way what every believer knows: that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23)?

Perhaps it’s one thing to admit guilt communally, and something else again to call attention to it personally, even to wear it like an emblem. That seems more akin to saying not simply that “all have sinned” but that I have sinned, I am guilty. And guilt, no matter how perennial a companion it is for some of us—thanks, Mom—remains an uncomfortable feeling. (Some of us even feel guilty about feeling guilty, since we know we are forgiven but have difficulty feeling freed from our sense of guilt.)

Last year, as scary as the decision was, I determined that this year I would wear ashes for the first time. I decided that I needed to make Ash Wednesday personal, to spend a day walking around acknowledging that, even though I’m redeemed, “my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:3) and trying to remember why that’s a good thing, at least on one level. That’s because God calls us upward toward his example of perfection, but God also remembers our humanity, remembers that we are dust. Talk about a hygiene problem!

How can we, being dust, ever make ourselves clean? The good news is that, because of Christ, we don’t have to do that. What we do have to do is remember that, in him, yes, we are cleansed of all unrighteousness. But we must never forget that we have not done it for ourselves, that we must rely on Christ, through the Holy Spirit, to clean and sanctify us daily. But for Christ, our righteousness would be as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6).

From Ash Wednesday to Resurrection Sunday and beyond, let’s remember and give thanks for the one who washes us with his blood, showers us with blessings, and continually rains down grace upon us for good measure. 

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