Today the church welcomes the beginning of the season of Lent by marking Ash Wednesday. Across the world, Christians will receive the imposition of ashes upon their forehead, the sign of a cross made to signify their sinfulness, repentance and ultimately the forgiveness of Christ.
It is an ancient ritual that seems out of place with the rest of today's comings and goings. Why should we take time to stop to remember our sins, to stare into the deepest part of who we are and stand face to face with those bits of us we dislike the most?
Society has taught us to hide our failures and our iniquities and to present only a half-true, polished version who we are. Each and every one of us knows that we are not perfect, that we are flawed, and that we make mistakes. Christian or not, the truth is we are a broken people.
Ash Wednesday encourages us to confront our darkness head on, to stand eye to eye with our flawed humanity and proclaim that there is a hope, a better way of living. That is why we mark our foreheads with a cross, as a sign not only of our sinfulness and brokenness, but also of Christ's redemption and forgiveness.
Ash Wednesday also forces us to be aware of our mortality. Despite the best efforts of science and technology, death is something that will eventually catch us all. Recognising this, being aware of and accepting our own mortality, is hugely freeing. We are no longer caught up in a desperate attempt to beat death, but are able to delight in living in the present moment, grateful for every new day we get and every opportunity to embrace this beautiful, fragile world.
That one sign of the cross on our foreheads represents all this. We are mortal. We are broken. We make mistakes. And yet it also tells us we are loved. Forgiven. Free. Created to delight in the world we live in and the God who created it.
In a world that will try anything it can to numb and avoid the pain we are all in, Ash Wednesday matters.