We are offended by the cross. One reason I know this is because of the mixed reactions I received from people seeing the ash on my face Wednesday. The ash cross is a startling reminder of Jesus’ suffering and immeasurable love.
The cross startles us. I think mostly because you can’t escape your brokenness, your sin. It stares you in the face. It says, “You are broken. And you can’t fix it.”
I went back and forth about whether to wear the ash cross all day. I hate standing apart from the crowd. I am quite comfortable being in the back of a classroom, the back of a group photo, and the back of any public space you can name. I want to sit and observe from the edges. It’s my cozy zone.
And, as I was listening to the text in morning prayer Wednesday morning I get why I want to remain near the edges. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable of two men who go to pray. One, a Pharisee, says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Wow. I mean, that’s some pretty self-involved stuff. But, if I’m being honest, I’ve thought that before. I’ve smirked with that type of self-congratulations.
And, then there’s this tax collector. He humbles himself, looking downward and simply says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
The tax collector gets it. He is broken; he needs God.
So, I get how we want to avoid the mistake of the Pharisee. We don’t want to wear symbols or say things or do things that permeate with self-righteousness. We want to worship rightly. We want to serve others rightly. We want to reflect Christ rightly. And, therein lies the problem: we want to do and say these things rightly.
Tell me how to do it, and I’ll do it. Many of us enjoy a solid WikiHow or a great YouTube video that explains how to get the dang image in InDesign to adjust the whole image and not just cut the image in half! The Pharisee was doing what he had learned to do: pray to God in the temple. So, technically he was doing something rightly, well, at least from his perspective.
The tax collector, I suspect, didn’t show up to the temple to pray because of some code or law or requirement. Perhaps he did. However, I imagine he showed up out of a sense of desperation, out of a feeling that nothing else had worked. He came with an honest, penitent heart, simply admitting that he was broken and acknowledged God’s ability to be merciful, to show love.
In year’s past, following the imposition of ashes, I was all too quick to dash to a mirror with a tissue and wipe away the ash telling myself that I had such-and-such meeting and it wasn’t professional, etc. But, I knew in my heart I was just plain embarrassed.
And, so this Ash Wednesday I wore the ash cross all day. I didn’t wear it because I felt proud of myself. In fact, it is stirred up uneasiness. Instead, I watched the eyes of those I encountered. In their eyes I saw my own awkwardness, the desire to look, to see both brokenness and great love, and then run the other way.
I pray that during Lent God will reveal to us all a hard look at both our brokenness and also the profound love God has for all of creation. May we be willing to stare into those reminders and say, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
P.S. By 4 pm that day I had forgotten I had ash on my forehead as I pressed my hand against my forehead while reading (a common physical posture of mine). The ash had been almost completely removed and since I was returning to another service later in the evening, this time with my kids, I knelt for ashes again thinking, Well, a second reminder today won’t hurt my ego!