There’s been a lot of talk about religious freedom over the past couple of weeks. Whatever side of the story you believe, Christianity has taken a hit both from people who oppose it and people who exploit it. I want to propose something that those of us who love Jesus can do to represent Him in a way that will assert our religious freedom without oppressing other people.
Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a forty-day period of penitent reflection in which we remember our sins and our need of Christ’s redemption. It’s a long-standing tradition in Catholic and more high-church Protestant denominations to have your forehead marked with a cross of ashes both as a reminder to be humble since your sins nailed the Son of God to a tree and as a public witness showing the world that you are a sinner dependent on God. (There’s no reason for Baptists and Pentecostals and non-denominationals not to do it too.) If there ever were a time in our country when Christians needed to put ashes on our foreheads, it is now. In Ezekiel 9:4, one of the scriptural sources for Ash Wednesday, the voice of God says, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” I know that we all have different culprits that we accuse of flushing our country down the toilet, but I’m sure we can agree that it’s appropriate to mourn the state of our country.
I strongly believe that wearing ashes on our foreheads next Wednesday is the best way to 1) assert our religious freedom as citizens and 2) remember that our call as Christians is to be witnesses first and foremost. God doesn’t build His kingdom through petitions or angry signs or blogosphere comment wars; He has always built it through the patient witness that can only occur face to face in personal relationships.
There are people with whom you work that may have negative stereotypes about Christians, but they know that you are a decent person. They need to be reminded that you are who they’re bashing if they bash Christians (as long as you’re not the reason they bash Christians). It’s a lot easier to hate people you don’t make jokes with on a daily basis. It’s not going to hurt anybody else for you to have ashes on your forehead. Nobody can say you’re cramming your religion down their throat. If the ashes make you self-conscious, all the better. If you don’t have anything intelligent to say, your witness may actually be more powerful. Just remember the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:1-3:
When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.
Maybe it’s the case that you’ve been a royal pain to your colleagues and you need those ashes to humble you and remind you of who you have been representing every day. Maybe people need to see you mourning your own sin. Of course, this only has meaning if it’s accompanied by “fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
I realize some people will think this is very simple-minded, but I honestly think that if enough Christians are willing to represent Christ with ashes on their foreheads during the day next Wednesday, it could have a tremendously positive impact on the religious climate in our country. I can’t see how having ashes on your forehead could offend anyone, but if they do lash out at you, then treat them with such love and dignity that they will be ashamed and repent. 1 Peter 4:16 says, “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” Whatever else is true, people across our nation need to see Christians wearing a sign of humility and weakness to counteract the stereotypes that we are some arrogant, powerful species of people.
For this to be a public witness, you have to get your ashes in the morning. Next Wednesday, I will be standing in my church parking lot at 6200 Burke Centre Parkway in Burke, Virginia, from 5:30 to 7:30 am to provide ashes to anyone from my church or any other church who wants to represent Jesus. We will also have ashes available at the Burke VRE station from 6 to 8 am and inside our church lobby from 9:45 to 10:15 am. I pray and hope that you will join us in this simple, non-confrontational means of bearing witness.