Every Ash Wednesday I have well meaning strangers stop me to inform me I have something smeared on my forehead.
Last year it happened in a grocery store check out line.
The young cashier said, "Excuse me ma'am, but you've got gunk on your forehead. Just looking out for ya, sister!" I smiled back and responded, "Oh thanks! But that's meant to be there. It's a cross of ashes, because today is Ash Wednesday."
She blinked and gave a weak smile. Clearly she didn't know what I was talking about. A hush came over the line of costumers behind me.
The middle aged man behind me scoffed, "That's just for religious nuts who want to feel guilty and make other people feel guilty. It's so morbid."
Now everyone was listening. Even the grocery bagger was leaning in.
I stammered,"Well yes and no." The gruff man snarled, "What the heck does that mean?"
I replied, "For me this day isn't about feeling guilty. It's about hearing the truth."
"Oh yeah?" the man snorted, "What's the truth?"
I responded, "Well sir, every single one of us will die. No matter who we are or what we do or what sort of car we drive or how much money we have or what sort of groceries we buy, we will ALL die. No matter what we do or don't believe, all of us, you and me and everyone in this supermarket will, someday, die. And I don't know about you, but that's the truth if I ever did hear it. It may be morbid, but it's also honest. And personally, I find that sort of honesty refreshing."
This wasn't your average grocery store conversation. And my response wasn't the most theologically sophisticated answer. But at that moment, it seemed right. It felt true.
If nothing else, I began to understand why I find Ash Wednesday so compelling.
Ash Wednesday doesn't mince words. It doesn't try to numb us from pain. It doesn't seek to entertain, amuse, or otherwise distract us from human frailty and finitude. Ash Wednesday doesn't attempt to protect us from the brokenness in our lives and world.
Like a liturgical sucker punch, Ash Wednesday marks us square between the eyes. With a single smudge, it startles us into awareness, and reminds us where we come from, who we are, and how we are connected.
After all, this is the day we hear the words, "From dust you came, and to dust you shall return." Or, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
Whether you're a devout believer or a staunch atheist, there's no denying it. Ash Wednesday tells the truth. Whether we're born from cosmic stardust or animated from Divine Breath, we all come from the same stuff. And someday, all of us will return.
Or, as the old nurses rhyme goes, "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down."
So the next time you see a person with ashes on their forehead, consider this: they are simply telling you the truth.
And hopefully, like me, you'll find that sort of honesty refreshing, compelling, and even beautiful.