Every Ash Wednesday, some believers mark the occasion with a forehead smudge of ash made in the sign of a cross. By now, this should be common knowledge.
I can only imagine how many people asked someone celebrating Ash Wednesday about that forehead smudge.
It happens every year.
A friend of mine posted a photo of himself with the smudge at his office. He also wore a sticky note on his shirt.
“After about a dozen questions from coworkers and numerous odd stares, I decided to take preventive action,” he wrote.
Eleven years ago — 11 years! — I wrote about Ash Wednesday. I called it the day when people would walk around with “grayish smudges on their foreheads.”
“But don’t worry,” I said. “They know it’s there.”
In 11 years, far too many people remain so culturally unaware that they still have to ask.
It has been some 20 years since I worked with an artist who happens to be Catholic. Each Ash Wednesday, nearly everyone who encountered him told him he had something on his head.
It became a joke. Sometimes, people he explained it to the year before would still repeat the faux pas the following year.
I grew up Southern Baptist, and most Baptist churches don’t participate in Ash Wednesday. The day is primarily observed by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and some Anglicans.
But I spent several years at a nondenominational church that did celebrate it.
The ashes are remains of palm leaves used on the previous year’s Palm Sunday. A decade ago, that church’s pastor explained the ashes represent four things:
- A humbling reminder of where we’ve come from and where we are to return.
- The reduction of things to a simpler form when purified by fire.
- Death, through remembrance of Christ and our identification with it.
- Abstinence, through the death of our willingness to let desires of the flesh control our actions.
Ash Wednesday is also the start of Lent, a 40-day period during which people give up some creature comfort. It’s a symbol of the 40 days of fasting and prayer Jesus Christ spent in the wilderness before his eventual crucifixion.
So now, you know what that forehead smudge is all about.
Maybe one day everyone will understand.