All around the globe Christians are united in a spirit of repentance and renewal this Lent. For some, this renewal is a time of giving up or going without. For others the reminder that ‘we are dust and to dust we shall return’ is a call to repentance. Our liturgies tap into our common desire for mercy and our need to repent of sin.
Last Wednesday all this was summarized in the imposition of the sign of the cross on our forehead with the ashes of last Palm Sunday. At baptism we received the sign of the cross on our foreheads, and we were "marked as Christ's own forever." Forever we identify as children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, citizens of the kingdom of God.
The mark of the cross is the shape of a capital "I". That which is uniquely me. My strengths and my weaknesses. My talents and my sins. Each of us is like no other. We are each called into a personal relationship with God that is different from everyone else - not necessarily better or worse, just different.
This capital "I" is also that which separates me from God. It represents those things that I claim for myself alone: my terminal desire for uniqueness. In imposing the cross on our forehead, the vertical stroke of the capital "I" is followed by the horizontal stroke of crossing it out. The "I" that is crossed out is the "I" that leads to the feelings of alienation from God. It is as if in the horizontal stroke, the loving arms of Christ are stretched out to welcome me back home. The wiping away of the "I" that separates me from God gives me the freedom and the ability to reach out to my brothers and sisters.
The cross of ashes was a call to repent of the "sin" that we allow to separate us from God - a call to forgiveness and wholeness. At the same time, the sign of the cross on our forehead is formed by a personal relationship with God intersecting with my solidarity, my commonality, with all the others for whom Christ died.
On Ash Wednesday the sign of the cross is clearly visible on our forehead. In a few hours the ashes will have faded and disappeared. However, we are forever marked with the sign of the cross by our Baptism. We show that reality by the way we live our lives as His disciples in the world today.
Here is a question for Lent - it’s the same as last week’s: when people see us and know us, do they believe that God is Love? That is what it really means to bear the mark of Christ.