Joel 2:1-2, 12-17Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

It is a strange thing that we do here on Ash Wednesday, coming forward as though we might be receiving communion, only to be told that one day we will die and then get our foreheads smudged with dirt.

Particularly for those of us from the so-called “lower church” traditions, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, the act is particularly strange. Higher liturgical churches (Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, Orthodox) regularly practice healing services, anointing the head with oil in the sign of the cross. And so replacing that oil with ashes is particularly poignant in those traditions, a harsh reminder of the brokenness of our human existence.

And yet, even for us Presbyterians, there is profound meaning in it all. We begin our walk today of forty days toward the incredible mysteries of the cross, of crucifixion and resurrection, and so begin our deliberate journey of personal reflection and communion introspection. And we stop on this day, marking the start of Lent, and begin in repentance, an intentional turning away from brokenness and towards the source of perfection.

As we are marked with the ashes, and as we leave this place, we will remember what we have done the rest of this day. We catch ourselves in the mirror, looking at our foreheads: “What is that? Oh, yeah!” We see others with the mark on them, and exchange a knowing glance or nod with one another, like a secret treehouse handshake. Others come up to us, not part of our club, “Excuse me, but you’ve got a little, uh...” It is a witness, to ourselves and to others, of who we are, and of whose we are. As Christians, we have no illusions of immortality or perfection. A little bit of dirt in the shape of a cross can do just that.

But then, it all gets strange again. We read Jesus’ remarks in our gospel passage about fasting in secret and putting oil on our heads and hiding our slight discomfort, so that we would be sure we are fasting for ourselves and for our God, and not for our neighbors to see how truly devout we are. And then, hearing these words, we mark ourselves with ashes, and head out into the world for all to see our piety.

So today, as we begin this Lenten journey together, as two churches brought together in worship as the body of Christ, I invite us to consider an alternative. I still invite us to come forward, to mark the beginning of Lent with this reminder of mortality, brokenness, and imperfection. But at the back of the sanctuary is a bowl of water, marking our entry to the sanctuary, a reminder of our entry into the church through our common baptism. So as we leave the sanctuary, I invite us to wash those ashes off with those waters, remembering that in our baptism, we die with Christ and rise with Christ, and our sins are cleansed, forgiven.

There is no right answer. There is power in the small moment of witness that a smudge on the forehead brings to our neighbors. And if choosing to wash off the ashes means looking down on those who don’t, we’ve clearly missed the whole point. Instead, I invite you to make the choice that seems right to you, trusting the power inherent in it. But don’t cheat! Don’t look around as you leave to see whether more people are washing off or leaving the ashes.

And in the end, whether we leave here with a clean forehead or smudged brow, we need to carry the meaning of that marking with us the rest of the day. As we begin this Lenten journey together, let us all remember that we are indeed dust, and to dust we shall return.