This is part of my 2013 Lent series: Reflections on Repentance.]
Last week was Ash Wednesday, which begins the church season of Lent. On that day, hundreds of millions of people (perhaps even as much as a billion) went to quiet services and got ash crosses finger-painted on their foreheads.
It’s a strange act, but perhaps the most striking one in Christian tradition. It’s certainly my favorite.
No matter how widespread Christianity has been in the world, I can’t imagine there was ever a time in which the public mark of ashes on one’s face did not stir some sort of double-take from passers-by. Even to this day, it’s the most counter-cultural and outward thing many American Christians widely do.
Ashen forehead crosses are one of the few Christian traditions that is still ours, and hasn’t been co-opted by the wider culture, and thereby watered-down in its meaning or force.