An Ash Smudge and the Cross of Christ

We are a smooth-skinned people.

Between walnut-shell exfoliants, multivitamins, microdermabrasion and “Botox parties,” well off Americans aim to erase death line by wrinkled line. We want to look like the ageless demigods of Oscar parties, our skin as seamless as an airbrushed photo in Self. It is jarring, then, to see people—polished and otherwise—branded with an unseemly cross of ashes; their baby skin made morbid.

Last Ash Wednesday in New York I walked down Broadway after a noontime Mass, surprised to see the hot dog vendor and the svelte blonde in black gabardine and the punk salesman at Tower Records all smudged and branded like myself.

As a public school girl I was embarrassed by this primitive marking. I was one of two or three students who went to Catholic Mass on Ash Wednesday. I’d leave at lunch looking like a nine-year old fashion plate, and would return with an empty stomach and a black smudge on my forehead—suddenly made other.

This was not the cross that girlfriends wore in silver and turquoise around their dainty necks, nor was it the crucifix that swaggering men tattooed on their arms.

No ornament, this cross claimed and terrified: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” What could such marking mean?

As sign we have purged the cross of its reality and its shame, its slow hours of suffering and death. As symbol we have employed the cross to justify our own desire for another’s demise, and our own scrabbling after power. We forget that the cross is a deep well of mystery and disturbing paradox, turning, as theologian Nathan Mitchell writes, “passion into compassion; murder into mercy; death into deliverance; blood into bread; rage into rapture” and “a corpse into a church.”

On Ash Wednesday we are marked. We are reminded that when we were baptized we were baptized into Christ’s death. We are reminded of how brief our lives are and of how small our works are. This year we will hear an urgent reading from the book of Joel:

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments.
and return to the Lord your God.

This God, we are told, is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger” and “rich in kindness.” And though we may tear our clothing, deny our hunger, and mar our faces, God only wants our hearts. We practice these outward signs of fasting and repentance because we are fleshly beings, and we are molded from the outside in.

And we are turned upside down—believing that in dying we live and that in falling in love with the necessity of the cross we are set free. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison that we are burdened by “the yoke of our self.” “But,” he continues, “Jesus invites all who travail and are heavy laden to throw off their own yoke and take his yoke upon them—and his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. The yoke and the burden of Christ are his cross.”