Ash Crosses and Social Networks

ash cross

Several years ago I remember riding the subway to work in New York City on Ash Wednesday.  I was surprised by the number of people who got on and off the subway with ashes on their heads – people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds, dressed in suits, workout clothes, street clothes, young and old.  I was curious to know each of their stories and what led them to take that sign on their forehead for others to see.  I wanted to know their faith background, their personal stories and curiously, why they didn’t wash the ashes off, but traveled about the city with a smeary cross brandished on their face.  But, like every other daily New York commuter, I kept my head down, tried not to make eye contact and carried on with my day.

It is Ash Wednesday once again and I’m wondering the same things.  Even though I won’t be riding the subway, or traveling around, I wonder about the importance and relevance of people from a variety of backgrounds participating in this age old tradition of beginning the Lenten season with an ashen cross on skin.  Then, I do what I so regularly do in the course of each day: I check my Facebook feed.  There, like sitting curiously on a train car, I take note of a few posts about Lent and ashes, sprinkled on the backdrop of strong political opinions, news articles and personal posts from my friends.

The juxtaposition of ashes alongside with posts/opinions about the presidential primary in New Hampshire and the random pictures of my friends’ life moments has helped me see this ancient ritual in a new light.  The cross reminds me that I am broken and imperfect.

The daily, and even hourly, practice of perusing the statuses of our friends and acquaintances online keeps us connected but can also expose one of our fundamental human flaws – a deep feeling of inadequacy.  People from different seasons in our lives, past and present, share photos of their kids, their weddings, their exotic vacations, work successes, milestones and post witty thoughts.  It is easy, when surrounded by the interesting images and tidbits of people whom we may or may not actually consider to be real friends, to look at our own circumstances with disappointment.

As a pastor, people often share with me their own personal insecurities in comparison with the lives of others.  They wish they had better relationships, the ability to have children, opportunities to travel, a more fulfilling job and a greater sense of purpose.  In this way, judging ourselves based on the public profiles of our “friends” can be destructive to self esteem and self image.  In short:

It is easy to forget that what is projected onto social networks only ever tells a small piece of the whole story.  It is a personal PR outlet that we control and show others what we want them to know and see – for better, or worse.  Whether intentionally or not, people can project perfect, happy lives, that don’t always tell the whole truth, while holding back personal struggles, broken marriages, disappointments and even their  own similar struggle with feelings of inadequacy.  When people choose then to post images of ash smeared on their foreheads, I wonder again, like on the subway, why put this image out there?

There have been times when I have felt that putting ashes on my head and then going into public places is antithetical to what Jesus says in Matthew 6 – don’t call attention to your physical state when you are fasting – do it privately and in humility.

In light of pressures that I have seen so many facing from popular culture and the nature of digitally public lives, I can see how the sign of ashes sends a very different and powerful message.  Rather than proclaiming to the world, “Look at me, I’m religious, I did my duty on Ash Wednesday!”, the sign has the power to make a different statement: “It’s ok.  I’m not perfect either.”

It is owning our brokenness, not in a shaming or self deprecating way, that happens so commonly and naturally when we feel that we don’t meausre up to the standards set around us, but in a way that gives us freedom to rest in the loving arms of God.  In the same way that the sacred words, “from ashes you have come, to ashes you shall return” remind us of our human limitations, this powerful symbol reminds us of the universal need for God’s unlimited love.   The mark of the cross can serve as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.”

On this first day of Lent, whether you observe the sign of ashes or not, remember that you are loved without limitation and without condition.  By claiming this love for ourselves and others, we offer our natural human feeling of inadequacy into the loving embrace of the God who chose us for this life, gave us breath and abides in us.

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Categories: Faith, Uncategorized

Author:Chris Heckert

Senior Pastor of Haddonfield United Methodist Church Musician, communicator, husband/father, seeker of a better way through reconciliation by the healing power of God's love

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