Today is Valentine's Day, which is great and all, but even more importantly, it's Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day season of the church year leading up to Easter. Lent is a period of prayer and fasting, inviting us to remember and reflect upon Christ's forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness before he began his public ministry. In many ways, the road to cross begins today.
Ash Wednesday itself is a rather unique day. Churches around the world will burn the palm leaves left over from last year's Palm Sunday celebrations, mix them with oil, and use them to make the sign of the cross on a person's forehead. The person administering ("imposing") the ashes traditionally says these words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Sometimes other words are added: "Look to the cross," or, "Remember your baptism and be thankful."
It's a powerful reminder that even as Christ suffered and died, we, too, will one day see death if Jesus doesn't return first. The ashes remind us of our own mortality as we begin a season of self-denial. Most importantly, they remind us of the cross of Christ looming large in the background. Golgotha is just days away -- but so is the empty tomb, and together the two bring us eternal life and salvation from sin.
Our denomination doesn't impose ashes or mark Ash Wednesday (or Lent) in any way, and I frankly think that a mistake. After all, if the life of Jesus teaches us nothing else, it's that sometimes joy and freedom come with a cost, that love demands pain and ashes. Still, as you go about your day today, remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. Look to the cross; remember your baptism and be thankful.