Psalms 95 & 32, 143, 102, 130; Jonah 3: 1 – 4: 11; Heb. 12: 1-14; Luke 18: 9-14
When our kids were much younger and Chicago winters meant they couldn’t go outside to play, Becky often took to reading to them from the latest Harry Potter books. The kids were captivated by this young outcast who discovers that he has gifts and talents that set him apart and mark him as different and special. Harry is an orphan, his parents having been murdered by the evil wizard Voldemort. This once-promising sorcerer turned his wand next toward the infant Harry, but our hero mysteriously survived the attack, with a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead.
“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.”
J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: Scholastic, 1997) p. 299.
Our own foreheads bear the unmistakable marks of the certainty of death and the assurance of hope. Every year at this time, we smear each other with a sign of our mortality and say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But we know that these ashes are no match for a sign we’ve carried since our baptism, when we were sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever. God promises not to forget or forsake us, calling out in the Book of Revelation, “Do not damage the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have marked the servants of our God with a seal upon their foreheads” (Rev. 7:3).
Like our Lord, who was taken to the top of the temple and tempted to turn and worship Satan, our ashes take us to the brink of our own mortality, even tasting death with Christ, and returning to the dust. We’re tempted, then, to close our imaginations and retreat to fear, forgetting whose we are.
Dust accumulates when we put something special on the shelf and fail to use it, as when we profess to believe we’re set free to be loving, generous, and Christ-like, but tell a different story by the way we live our lives. Let’s wear that dust for a while and remember whence we shall return, and prepare to turn, to repent, and to live into the life that’s in our very skin.
The Rev. Lane Hensley is Rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Palm Desert, CA.