What ministers with their ashes are offering is a bodily marker of God's entry into our death. The ashes Cathie will inscribe on my forehead, and I on hers, let me name truths that most days I cannot or will not name—that I have sinned; also, that I have a body, and I am going to die. To walk around all day with a cross on your head is to walk around in a body inscribed with death. It is also, oddly, to walk around inscribed with hope—the hope that comes through Jesus' having joined us in our mortality.
To my mind, the priests who offer ashes in public on Wednesday are not doing something for the sake of convenience or expediency; this is not liturgical fast food. Cathie and I will be in front of the hospital offering an invitation to willing passersby to join us in reflecting on our limitations and sins and our need for God's grace. And we will be in public, with our prayers and our crosses of ash, to meet the Christ who died in a public place.
Lauren Winner teaches at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., and was recently ordained an Episcopal priest. Her new book is Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.
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Previous articles by or about Lauren Winner include:
Sex in the Body of Christ | Chastity is a spiritual discipline for the whole church. (May 13, 2005)
The Dick Staub Interview: Lauren Winner's Faith Still a Bit Jewish | The author of Girl Meets God discusses the Jewish habits that inform her Christianity. January 1, 2004)
Solitary Refinement | Evangelical assumptions about singleness still need rethinking. (June 11, 2001)