A Vincentian View: “Hope in Ashes”
When I play poker, I do so solely for enjoyment. You can tell that by some of the games which I will play. One may be familiar to you: “Blind Man’s Bluff.” In this poker game, each player receives one card face down. Then everyone at the same time, picks up the card without looking at it and holds it in front of his/her forehead. Thus, everyone can see my card, and I can see everyone’s card, but no one can see his/her own card. Then, the betting begins. You can imagine the strategy. Everyone is looking at my forehead and sees something, but I can’t see it and must judge its value by the eyes and actions of others.
On Ash Wednesday, I regularly think of this game. I cannot see the ashes on my own forehead!
Ash Wednesday, as we know, marks the beginning of the Christian season of Lent—forty days during which each person reflects upon his/her own weaknesses and seeks to repent before entering the holy season of Easter. On this Wednesday, individuals seek to be marked on the forehead with ashes which have been blessed. When being sealed with these embers, the person can hear the words: “Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.” That does not sound like a very cheery greeting, yet its intent holds great promise.
The words come from the earliest stories in the book of Genesis. The creation narrative tells us that our “first parents” had been formed from the dust of the earth. Then, God blew his breath into their lungs and they became living human beings (Gen 2:7). However, Adam and Eve turned away from the Lord through sin. It is then that they hear the fateful words:
For you are dust,
and to dust you shall return. (Gen 3:19).
This reminds them, as us, that without God, we are simply dust without life and without hope. With God, however, we are these marvelous creatures filled with divine breath. We need to turn away from whatever separates us from our maker; we need to stay close through repentance and faithful living.
On Ash Wednesday, we seek to be marked with the ashes which can stir our minds and hearts. Interestingly, unless we hang out around a lot of mirrors, we cannot see the ashes on our own foreheads. Yet, when I see them on the brow of other men and women, I can remember my own need for repentance and for turning parts of my life around. That is a safe bet for all of us.