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.
Forgiveness Vespers image source
Do you have a censor and some charcoal in icon corner? Read Psalm 51, pray the Prayer of St. Ephraim, and make the sign of the cross on your forehead with some of the charcoal. Why not?
Yes, I do! Good idea!
I read your post last night prior to going to the Ash Wednesday service at my church, and I carried your profound thoughts with me into that service. I had been asked to help with the imposition of ashes, and I thought of you and wished that I could mark you with the sign of the cross in the same way I was marking those in my community of faith. And then, I thought, why not a virtual marking? It is not the same as the physical ritual, I know, but since I am still thinking about it this morning, I thought I would offer it to you anyway.
Karissa, remember you have come from dust
and to dust you shall return.
Although you are only mortal,
it is the Lord your God who breathed
the breath of life into you;
who continues to breathe
new life into you.
During these forty days
may you remember
the things that get in the way
of you breathing this new life.
May you remember
to let these things go.
Although you are only mortal
may you remember you are God’s beloved.
In the name of the Father
and the son
and the Holy Spirit.
What an incredible blessing, Melynne.
Thank you so much for this.