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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ash Wednesday and the Entrance into Lent

What is it about Ash Wednesday ashes?

For days afterwards, I am rubbing my forehead.

The priest who gave me ashes yesterday was very deliberate, as always, and the pressure of his thumb was consistent, drawing the Sign of the Cross out as far as it would go, even into my hairline.

I was raised not to wipe off the ashes, but to leave them because the very discomfort of their presence itself was a penance. Our foreheads, whether exposed or covered by bangs are sensitive to the touch and when something is there, we tend to feel it.

As I child, I recall trying to surreptitiously trying to rub or scratch off the ashes for not only did they crumble into my eyes, but I could feel them there, like a big, unwelcome sticker placed upon my forehead like a mean joke that could not be undone. In my innocent and therefore sensitive state, those ashes drove me crazy.

As an adult, it became easier, and I've found that the hardness and insensitivity of my forehead has grown consistently with the calluses that have gradually taken over my heart and soul over the years.

After I was "ashed" around mid-day yesterday, I had no problem with the ashes - they did not disturb me, and by nightfall, they were still there - noticed intellectually, but not through sensitivity.

It has been my custom for years to allow the ashes to remain overnight, as a reminder when I first awake. If they are not on my pillowcase, at least then I hope to be startled by them in the bathroom mirror and wash them off then as the first act of my day - it is symbolic. So was my custom, in spite of my faithless state, carried on this morning.

All day long, though, even though I'd scrubbed my forehead, I "felt" the presence of the ashes, like Lady MacBeth trying to rub out the blood upon her hands. Over and over again I've rubbed at my forehead, as if they are still there, as if my sin is revealed to all. All day long (and this will go on for longer), the weight of the ashes remain, marking me in a way invisible to others, yet tangible to me...and to God.

We all carry the weight of guilt upon our souls and for me, I carry it on my forehead like the mark of Caine; and here I merge with him and with Lord and Lady MacBeth, pondering the deep psychology of guilt as presented by Shakespeare, but revealed in the common Ashes we receive at our entrance into Lent.

MacBeth, Act II, Scene I:

Lord MacBeth:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but(45)
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going,(50)
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest. I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There's no such thing:(55)
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o'er the one half-world
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain'd sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's offerings; and wither'd Murder,(60)
Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace,
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear(65)
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives;
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives. A bell rings.
I go, and it is done: the bell invites me.(70)
Hear it not, Adoro, for it is a knell
That summons thee to heaven, or to hell.

3 comments:

Bharabal said...

Thank you for posting this! For putting in to words how I feel "wearing" my ashes. I too, feel the ashes for days, if not for the full 40 days.

Thank you again!
Barbara

Katherine Mercurio Gotthardt said...

That photo is so disturbing. You don't have that kind of blood on your hands, of course.

Getting ashes is one of the things I miss about being a Catholic. I know that's superficial, but as a kid, I always felt special, wearing that mark. (I also loved getting palms and folding them into crosses.)

When the ashes got itchy, I dug my nails into the itch but didn't scratch. That's how I saved the ashes and conquered the irritation. Come to think about it, that's how I learned to itch poison ivy without spreading it.

Adoro said...

Bharabal ~ It's now the Saturday after Ash Wednesday - do you still feel them? I do...

And yes, sometimes for all of Lent. But it's a good reminder, isn't it?

Katherine ~ You said: "You don't have that kind of blood on your hands of course."

Don't I?

We all do...and even more. I think that picture is very benign. It looks more like barbecue sauce than blood, like someone's been basting a pork roast for too long.

(Maybe what St. Lawrence's executioners looked like...or after a few hours, if those who scourged Jesus didn't wash immediately, what their hands looked like.)

Yes, my hands are that bloody.


On the ashes, I did the same thing, eventually - dug my nail in. Still do that with certain kinds of itches - it does help!

Glad it kept you from spreading poison ivy, but didn't you have to also be sure to wash that nail right away lest you spread it somewhere else in a random scratch?