A few years ago I heard the story of a young and earnest priest in Mississippi. This story may be in the realm of myth or legend but it just as easily could be true. The story goes that on Ash Wednesday the priest got up and realized that he had forgotten to organize ashes for his Ash Wednesday service. Usually palms from the previous Palm Sunday are burned to create the ash that is smudged on people’s foreheads with the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”. Having forgotten to create or procure ashes this young priest did what anyone might do, he went to his hearth and scooped out ash. Who would know right?
Later in the day this young man stood and solemnly pronounced those words “Remember that you are dust…” and placed the sign of the cross on the foreheads of those gathered. The service ended. He and his congregation went about their day, until…
Several hours after the service ended he started getting phone calls. Worried, frightened, anxious phone calls. Each call was the same, the spot on their forehead where ashes had been placed had turned into a burning red welt. Each person who had been at the service now had a fiery, red cross on their forehead. Well you can imagine their worry. In the south, even in the Episcopal church, this could only mean one thing, you must have done something so bad that even the cross of ash, on Ash Wednesday, had turned against you. God was showing the world what a horrible, terrible person you were and turning you over to the dark forces of Satan.
After some time the priest decided to come clean and tell people that he had forgotten to get ashes and that he had used ash from his fireplace. This might have never been a problem, except that all he ever burned in the fireplace were fake, chemically enhanced, pressed wood logs call Duraflame logs. Somewhere on the package there was surely a warning ”Avoid contact with skin” “Ash may cause irritation or burns”. He had unintentionally given all of his parishioners chemical burns. Luckily the effects wore off and everyone got back to normal without any permanent disfigurement or damage.
I have often wondered what would have happened if those burns had not gone away. What if at every Ash Wednesday we got a new burn that didn’t fade or go away for a year. Similarly, what if at our baptisms, as the writer Barbara Brown Taylor suggest, we received a permanent cross on our forehead, not with oil or water, but in permanent ink. Who would we be? How would we act? My guess is that churches would be much smaller but maybe not. Maybe we would do what humans do, try to make our cross stand out. Some groups would want a red cross, others blue, some pink. It would likely become the Christian version of colored ribbons for various causes. The red would judge the pink, and the blue and aqua would argue about who could claim the true blueness of the Lord. Those with a black cross would claim that theirs was the only true cross and faith. If our Ash Wednesday burns did not fade would we begin to parade them proudly like a modern day stigmata and create the hashtag #ashwednesdayburn along with a selfie.
Maybe this is why the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday begins with the words “Beware of practicing your piety before others, in order to be seen by them…”