This season of change is ushered in on Ash Wednesday by a trumpet call and one of the most memorable of ritual gestures practiced by Christian communities—the imposition of ashes. Although Ash Wednesday is not an obligatory observance on the church calendar, churches are habitually filled on this day. There is something about the gesture of marking the sign of the cross
on one’s forehead with ashes that captures the religious imagination. It is a gesture that explicitly calls to mind our mortality. “Remember that you are human” or “From dust you came, to dust you will return” are the words that traditionally accom-pany the signing of the cross that leaves that unmistakable black smudge on one’s forehead.
The thought is sobering but not morbid. For the truth is that, considering the larger scheme of things, we live only a very short time. And the reminder of that reality can serve to put our present situation into clear perspective. It is not uncommon to read in the human interest section of the newspaper a story about a woman or man whose diagnosis of a terminal or life-threatening illness has brought about a radical change of heart. Suddenly, he or she examines priorities, sees superficial concerns for what they are, casts them aside, and determines to live each day with gratitude and fearlessness.
Ash Wednesday is such a diagnostic moment for all of us. The ritual is strikingly simple and ruthlessly egalitarian. None of us is excused from the procession. The smudgy mark does not adhere differently to man or woman, wealthy or destitute, educated or ignorant, compassionate or cruel. It labels us as one of the species, one of the mortals, who, like everything else in this created universe, will lose its present form. We will die. This is a certainty we share with each other. Knowledge of this radical sharing of our destiny draws us together at the onset of the season of Lent.
—Author Wendy M. Wright presented the keynote address “Faith and the ‘Poetic’ Imagination: Formation in the Gracious, Grace-Filled Life” at Messiah College’s 2006 Humanities Symposium,
entitled “The Power of Human Imagination,” held in February. Wright is the John C. Kenefick Faculty Chair in Humanities at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska. Joseph Huffman, dean of the School of the Humanities, invited her to give the keynote address because she understands both the power of human imagination as a dimension of our soul, but also the role imagination has played in the formation of many traditions of Christian spirituality.
From The Rising: Living the Mysteries of Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, copyright © 1994 by Wendy M. Wright, order #716. Used by permission of Upper Room Books, www.bookstore.upperroom.org
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