Sunday, March 5, 2017

Foreheads Crossed with Oil, Foreheads Crossed with Ash

Twice this past week at church I've made the sign of a cross on the foreheads of worshippers.  Last Sunday was our healing service, and I was assisting minister, so I used oil.  On Ash Wednesday, I used ashes.  What interests me is that I like smudging ashes more than using oil, and I wonder why.

Part of it comes out of the context of the service.  When people approach the rail at a healing service, I feel there's lots of hope and expectation, often tinged with desperation.  And yes, I realize I'm just a vessel of the Holy Spirit in this service, but I still feel some of that desperate hope directed at me.  And I wonder how people handle the disappointment that might come when their hopes for healing aren't delivered in the way they long for.

The ashes on the forehead are much more dramatic--is that why I like them more?  Or perhaps it is the more direct language:  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  There's no hope that we'll avoid that destiny--there's hope that death will open us to new opportunities, but that piece, whether metaphoric or literal, isn't part of most Ash Wednesday liturgies. 

Maybe that's why I like Ash Wednesday smudging best:  the reminder is stark, and the imperative is clear.  We are not here very long.  We must get on with what it is we are here to do in our very short lives.

1 comment:

Wendy said...

This is fascinating. They both mark the same thing: you are beloved, remember your baptism, we are marked with the sign of Christ; however, it's almost an opposite marking. The one, a hope for a miracle--even though we Presbyterians hedge that and talk about healing and wholeness vs. cure--tho other a sign that we are all mortal, that the miracle is in the living knowing that death will come. Huh.

Though I have done, I don't usually get to be the partner who marks with oil because I am comfortable saying the prayers, but there is something about the ashes, about dying the same words, about knowing or not knowing people's hopes and sorrows, what has happened in the intervening year, and marking everyone the same. Belovedness, community, mortality.