Today is Ash Wednesday. Today is marked, in many Christian traditions, by a service of holy communion, including an extended time of confession and repentance, and the opportunity to receive the ‘imposition of ashes’ – the mark of the cross, in ash (sometimes made by burning the previous years’ Palm Sunday palm crosses), on the forehead.
I was talking to someone today, and they were saying that they don’t really go in for symbolic rituals. So I asked them about how they marked birthdays in their family: with a cake, with candles, to be blown out by the person whose birthday it is. Often in our culture, this symbolic birthday ritual includes the making of a wish, which is supposed to be fulfilled if the candles are blown out in one breath; and is accompanied by the singing of Happy Birthday to You. Why? No-one really remembers: there is no inherent reason, but somehow we are marking and honouring someone in our midst.
In fact, we engage in symbolic rituals all the time. When I was a teenager, every disco – regardless of what songs were in the charts, or who the dj was – ended with Dexy’s Midnight Runners ‘Come on, Eileen!’ When that song came on, everyone knew it was the last song of the evening. And everyone ran on to the dance floor. And everyone joined in, in the same way: getting into an inward-looking circle, arms around each other’s shoulders, dancing a can-can which eventually disintegrated into a pogo as the music went from slow to faster and faster tempo. Symbolic ritual, marking the end of what had taken place, facilitating our dispersal.
There are probably millions of people in the UK who never place a bet on any other sporting event who, every year, take part in an office sweepstake on the Grand National. There are millions more who go out on stag- and hen-dos before their or a friend’s wedding: events which have a very clear unwritten list of requirements and code-of-conduct. At weddings themselves, we give and receive rings; and afterwards have speeches, with their own rules. Every morning, we start our day with our favourite cup of tea, in our favourite tea cup. When asked how things are progressing, we respond good so far, “touch wood” – reaching for a table or chair or, in the absence of anything wooden, our own head. Since Diana’s death, a roadside death is now marked by flowers at the spot. From the collective act to the individual act, from marking life’s milestones to negotiating the every-day, we engage in symbolic rituals all the time: often without thinking about it.
So the symbolic ritual of receiving the imposition of ashes on our forehead is not so very strange.
This particular symbolic ritual reminds us of our own mortality, of our human frailty, and of our need for God, met in the fully-human fully-divine person of Jesus Christ.