I attended seminary in Boston, Massachusetts. On Ash Wednesday, after morning chapel and all (well, most) at the seminary had received the “Imposition of Ashes,” I would make my way along Brattle Street, to Harvard Square, and catch a ride on the “T” Boston’s subway system. I had no particular destination. Some of those three Ash Wednesdays it took me to graduate from the Episcopal Divinity School, I would ride for a long while, others, only a short distance, deciding to walk if the weather was spring-like.
I was riding and looking for other pilgrims, Christian pilgrims, who were happy, perhaps more dutiful than happy, to wear the sign of The Cross that had been stroked on their forehead at some early Ash Wednesday Service. I considered myself to be in solidarity with them and their pilgrimage. I believe I saw a few of them nod my way in some sort of silent and holy recognition. We shared a secret that was now fully revealed to whoever looked our way – we belong to Jesus Christ. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word imposition as, “a burden imposed unfairly.” I never thought of wearing the ashen cross as that sort of burden, actually, I don’t feel it is a burden at all.
I was 12 years old when I was baptized. I can recall feeling as though something “special” had happened to me, and I remember riding home in the back seat of the family station wagon feeling less and less special the farther away we drove from church. After the three splashes of the water of baptism, I was stroked along my forehead in a sign of The Cross with the oil of Chrism, marked as “Christ’s own forever.” With my “special” feeling fading, I was eager to arrive home so I could check my forehead in the bathroom mirror for any sign of being “marked,” disappointed when I discovered it had disappeared. I’m not quite sure when I began to understand the imposition of walking around a full day with an ash cross on my forehead as a day that my cross of belonging to Christ, my baptismal chrism, had reappeared for all to see, but that’s how I understand that mark today. In a sense I celebrate belonging to Christ on Ash Wednesday
I, for one, need Ash Wednesday. I need to see and know there are others. Tomorrow I’ll impose the Ash here in the “Big House” (the church) and for a few hours out on the street downtown, and once again I’ll recognize the camaraderie of belonging to Christ we share as Christian pilgrims. Yes, “We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return,” but for now we wait, and watch, and we live with the opportunity to know we are not alone – there are others who know the secret.