This year I have volunteered to relieve the rector of the annual task of explaining how one should “beware of practicing your piety before others” and then proceed to daub our foreheads with char. That task, however, I will cheat upon by suggesting that one may apply a damp tissue or, failing that, the back of one's hand upon leaving the church.
No, it is the words which accompany the smearing to which I will speak first: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This was the word of the LORD God to Adam, after the first sin, and it speaks the fundamental fact of formation from the inanimate matter of the earth. We are not spirits which occupying fleshly vessels, as Gnostics ancient and modern teach; we cannot live separate from our animal bodies. We must eat and drink, and rise and sleep, and in all but the warmest climes we must cloth ourselves and seek shelter from the weather. This is the way of our living, and yet, from the day of our conception, the day of our demise awaits, unless the Day of the Lord intervene. It is as a sign to ourselves, therefore, that we mark our foreheads: a sign of our mortality.
Nevertheless, we who are baptized carry the divine light and are joined into the holy body, the church of which Christ is the head. Still, our fallen nature struggles against the divine. Thus the Church, in her wisdom, has set apart seasons in the year for penitence, which is to say, times in which our minds and bodies are especially harnessed to spiritual discipline for the sake recollecting our sins and purifying our wills, as best we feebly can. Therefore we fast: by tradition we fast of meat, and in the East they also forgo eggs and dairy, and even cooking oils. But if other abstinences prove more fruitful to you, if some other act of self-denial more constantly keeps you mindful, then choose it. The point is recollection of the spiritual through discipline of the flesh, not mere obedience to a rule.
Beyond that, we are called to greater prayerfulness; and if you are not already doing so, I commend to you the daily devotions which may be found in the Prayer Book, even if you can fit only one into your day. And if you can start in Lent, perhaps you can continue through the year, so that prayer becomes ever more part of your daily living.
In these forty days we are reminded of the days spent in the ark during the flood, the days of Jesus' temptation, the days of resurrection before Jesus ascended to the throne of heaven, taking our earthly form to the heart of the Godhead. From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead, on the day of the Lord, which as the prophet Joel says shall be terrible beyond human endurance, were it not for the mercy of the Lord in our salvation. Thus we prepare ourselves for that dread day, that we may watch with the wise virgins, our lamps well lighted. Our appetites, though, call us away, both in body and mind. Let us sleep! Let us find pleasant diversions! Let us give free rein to our impulses! they disobediently cry, as on that sorry day in Eden.
And thus it is given to us in some seasons to rejoice in our salvation, and in others to look upon our sins and acknowledge them. We reheat the twisted metal of our souls in the forge of self-denial to make them malleable, and hammer them on the anvil of spiritual disciplines to restore their proper shapes. And thus we begin this season, the mark of ashes recalling to us our origins in the substance of creation. We are but dust, made living through the first grace of God in creation, and now, made living again through the grace which comes through our savior Jesus Christ, who shares in our flesh, its morality made immortal. In that terrible last day, when the old earth and heavens pass away, all that is worldly will finally pass with them, all that has not withered or rusted or been eaten away long before. And before the last, we may, like Paul, be called to set aside wealth and comfort and the approbation of our fellows in our witness to the gospel; indeed, like those slain in Libya, we may lose our lives. But in these losses is salvation found, when what is worldly passes away. And thus it is well that we prepare through self-denial and prayer.
Easter will yet come, the day of glorious resurrection, and after the Day of the Lord, the glorious eternity of the new life. But we are not there yet; and the way to Easter leads first to the cross, that great sacrifice. Can we not watch with our Lord in our own Gethsemane, praying and fasting?