Ash Wednesday. The day our misbegotten zeal from last year is mercifully torched and the burnt remains refashioned as the sign of the cross upon our redeemed (and still-being-redeemed) flesh. We are the crowds acclaiming Jesus’ entrance into the city one day and screaming for his execution only days later. Our enthusiasm isn’t for the Messiah who came- only for the Messiah of our self-centered imaginings. The ashen cross upon our foreheads reminds us: “Your agendas will die, just as you will.”
Let’s make one thing clear: these ashes aren’t a badge of our having arrived at a new height of piety or righteousness. They mark us out as Cain was marked out: “This is the guilty one.” They are a tangible token of our mortality, our feebleness: “Dust you are.” We are no mightier than dust. We are just as insubstantial, just as prone to buckle and collapse. The ashes point to the death sentence Adam’s race has incurred. But they aren’t the death sentence itself. That has already been pronounced: it looms over our existence every nanosecond following our arrival into this world. Decay is our destiny. No, the ashes are the sign of that sentence’s transformation. Like Cain’s, this mark both identifies us as sinners and seals God’s protection. Why is it literally placed upon us, though?
The sign is literally placed because our literality as persons is instantiated in and through our bodies. We Americans sidestep this regularly. We speak of our “selves” and our bodies as two separate things, pretend there’s an impenetrable division between what we are “inside” and what we are “outside.” But the meaning of our lives is disclosed in and through our bodies. They are the locations of our participation in sin and death- they aren’t a neutral encasement of something more fundamental. We are the unity of matter and soul: we are who and what we are on account of the bodies we find ourselves as and put to use. Our citizenship in death’s kingdom asserts itself, is situated… how can we put it? “Within” our bodies? “On” our bodies? “Through” our bodies? I don’t think we can say anything less than this, that our flesh is the signature registering us as citizens. Our bodies are the sites of our unfaithfulness to God and one another. If sin is the shape and trajectory of the fallen human project then death is the horizon defining our existence. For life that organizes itself in defiance of God isn’t life at all. It is death. Death is its origin, its principle, and its end.
Enter the ashen cross, the sign of our indissoluble unity and the sign of death’s demise.
The Son of God descended into this matrix of corruption and decay to transform the terror of death from within. The glorious one became a body in order to become a corpse, in order for that corpse to soak up every dissonance within the world he had made, the world we had brought to ruin. In and through his body he overwhelmed the infinite gap of our alienation from God. Nothing shielded the Son from the torrents of wrath and sin because his body is the medium through which unrighteousness is executed, and more than that, exterminated. The sin Christ bears in his body is annihilated through extinguishing of that body’s life. And so the breaking of that body became a passage. Christ’s body, entangled within the created order, bears its corrosion away and negates its negation: he infuses it with life. Not simply biological life, but authentic life, ζωή – the life of the age to come, the self-derived life of God Himself. And the corpse ceases to be a corpse: it surges impossibly to life, brimming with life, life gigantic enough and pure to reanimate a dead world.
Death is overwhelmed, reprogrammed to negate itself. Death is defanged, disarmed. Death can tyrannize no one because the Word who created all things has reasserted his Father’s rights over His creation. But that reassertion shames death by putting it to his use. To take the sign of his death onto your body therefore is to join yourself in your entirety to the pattern of his death- and his life. That is why we can receive its imprint on our bodies and face the reality we want more than anything to deny: “To dust you will return.” The dust of burnt palms reintegrates us as body-soul union; it bears its witness against our rebel dust, tactilely uttering God’s “No” to our delusions of grandeur, to our covenant with death. But even in that moment the sign curves around and deflects our attention to God’s “Yes” to us, to the dust that has abolished our destiny, the dust that has appointed a new destiny, the dust that is seated at the Father’s right hand. The Bread of Heaven is the dust of this world, leavening the world with life.
A portion of that dust will come to settle on your own flesh, a testimony silent as stars that this woeful world still finds its bearings in the Word who is before it and above it and within it. The ashes mark the death of fear and the extinction of death itself. The ashen cross speaks a better word: “I have not abandoned you: I am with you. And in my death you will take hold of true life.”