Today is Ash Wednesday, and this day is one thing I miss. Eastern Orthodox Lent begins with a tradition called Forgiveness Vespers, when all the parishioners gather in a circle and ask for and receive forgiveness from each other. It is a beautiful ceremony that always causes me to shed a few tears. This coming Sunday is Forgiveness Vespers, and I look forward it (assuming I can get there – we’re in the middle of a snow and ice storm in Tennessee!).
Yet I miss the ashes. I attended an Episcopal church for a couple of years before I became Orthodox, I always enjoyed the solemnity of Ash Wednesday. I enjoyed the quiet walk to the front of the church, the priest’s fingers tracing the sign of the cross on my forehead, the incense-laced aroma of the ashes, the sight of ashen crosses on my friends’ faces. It was a fitting entrance into Lent, an awareness of Christ’s suffering, and my own sin and repentance and sorrow.
Though I’m Eastern Orthodox now, I find myself wanting to embody that space again, wanting to bear the ash cross on my skin. I must admit it doesn’t really have much to do with sin or Lent. I simply crave the physical ritual, the skin on skin, the merging of dirt and body. There is a spiritual truth behind this, I know, though I can’t seem to put it to words right now.
Perhaps I want to be marked. Marked with ash, the leftovers of burning, the cousin of dirt, the reminder that we are formed from dust.
Ashes are a reminder that something was on fire. They carry the memory of pain, and of light, and of warmth.
Might that be the memory God has of making the world? What did it cost him to pour out a part of himself in order for us to exist? How much of an artist breaks off and embeds itself in his creation?
Maybe it is the memory of Jesus, his simple yet compassionate life, his terrifying, terrible death, his unbelievable rebirth? How, exactly, was Jesus’ heart and soul and body singed by this earth?
Or maybe the ashes are where I hold my memories, my quiet ponderings about the past, all the things that have been loved and lost and born and reborn. I want to mark my remembrance of those things, I want to mark my sorrow and my love.
I might want to be marked just to know that I still have a place here, in the midst of this landscape that has become so unfamiliar. The tangible physicality of ashes on my body might serve to realign me to my surroundings, or at least resurrect a yearning for faith.
Though I’m not much of a snow and ice driver, I actually checked around to see if any local churches have an Ash Wednesday service this evening. However, it appears that most churches have canceled or postponed services due to the weather. I just won’t be able to be marked this year.