Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday Sermon: “Marked”

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
United in Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, PA
March 5, 2014

We’ve had a total of four baptisms in the last two weeks, and celebrated First Communion with two of our youngsters.  As part of their learning, we read a story called The Welcome Table (Katherine S. Miller, Augsburg Fortress, 1994) about a young girl preparing for her first communion.  She recalls the day she was baptized, and the pastor making the sign of the cross on her forehead.  “Even though you can’t see the cross, it will always be there,” the pastor assures her.  One time when I read this book to a group of students, one of them piped up:  It’s like an invisible tattoo!

This evening the cross made on your forehead when you were baptized is now clearly visible for all to see.  It gives new meaning to the words we say at every baptism, “You have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.”  What does it mean to be marked?  It’s like we’re being branded, at least for this evening, with a temporary tattoo. 

Why do people get tattoos?  Some people put symbols on their skin that are meaningful for them.  Others put the name of a loved one permanently on their body.  For many people, it is the artwork of ink on flesh and the myriad of designs and colors that fascinates them.  The art moves and shifts as the body stretches and moves.
But of course there is a great deal of pain that goes into the art of tattoos.  Devon Kemper has shared with me many tales of the pain he has endured, and the extent to which he goes to minimize pain and infection for others whom he tattoos.  But the permanence of the marking points to a willingness to commit oneself to an image, a symbol, an idea, a person.

My grandfather was in the Pennsylvania National Guard and was one of the only people I knew growing up who had a tattoo.  It was the shape of Keystone.  As he aged and his skin wrinkled, the words inside the keystone and edges of the design faded and became muted, till there was not much left but a bluish blob.  But it was a sign for him that he belonged to something larger than himself, and that this group of soldiers in this state within this country could claim him as their own. It was a sign of his identity, his community, the solidarity he shared with others who bore that same mark.

Many years ago I was looking through some tattoo magazines to find images of people who mark themselves with actual crosses or other religious symbols to show to my Confirmation students. I was stunned to come across this image of an old woman in Bosnia with a cross tattooed on her forehead.

  I learned from the article that Catholic women in this area did tattoos the old fashioned way using sewing needles and a mixture of mother’s milk, honey, spit and water with ash scraped from a pot.  The author described his trek to find these women:

“It took a few hours of driving around the countryside in a hired taxi before I could set my eyes on the first traditionally dressed old woman with the bluish designs on her hands, faded from decades of working in the fields under the scorching sun.  She was really shy about showing her tattoos at first.  No surprise considering that only a few years ago identification with a specific religion often made the difference between life and death here,” ("Catholic Tattoos in Bosnia," Travelin’ Mick, Skin and Ink, March 2001, 26).

Many decades ago young girls between the ages of six and sixteen would tattoo themselves once a year after attending church on St. Stephen’s Day (March 19).  “All the tattoos were placed in clearly visible spots and were seen as a sign of beauty.  

Under Turkish rule in Bosnia, the cross tattoos served to prevent the girls from being kidnapped and sold into slavery, because a Muslim wouldn’t touch a tattooed girl.  If you compare the Bosnian tattoos with the ones you can still find among the [Coptic Christians] in Egypt, you also find similarities.  In both countries a minority of Christians in a Muslim-dominated area mark themselves with a cross tattoo in a place where everybody can see it as a sign of their common identity.” (Ibid, 28).

I remember the first time I went forward to receive the ashen cross on my forehead as child.  I felt embarrassed to have the t-shaped smudge on my forehead, worrying what people would think about me. Reading this story and seeing these images of the women gave me a new perspective on what it means to be marked as a Christian.  Especially on this one day of the year, we deliberately participate in this ritual of smearing ashes left from the burning of last year’s palms across our foreheads.

Covering oneself with ashes and putting on sackcloth was a sign of mourning and repentance in the Old Testament.  It was a visible reminder of the impermanence of life and one’s willingness to turn away from sin, burning it away and coming before God with just yourself – no luxuries, no illusions.  As we begin the 40-day journey of Lent, we are symbolically doing the same thing today.  We may not be wearing burlap bags, but the ashes on our foreheads reminds us that our bodies come from the basic elements of earth, and when we die, we will return to that state.

This can be a very sad service for some people.  Seventeen years ago I attended an Ash Wednesday service when I was still a student at seminary.  My grandfather had died just a few months earlier, and I was missing him very much.  I sat in the pew watching every person go forward to hear the same words: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  I was crying as I went forward to receive my ashes.  A few flakes fell from the cross into my eyelashes, mixing with my tears.  I walked back to the pew, just sobbing. 

But when I sat down all my friends gathered close and put their arms around me, comforting me in my grief.  And while I was filled with sadness, I knew I was marked with a symbol that means I belong to something larger than myself, and that this group of Christians could claim me as their own.  And that Christ, himself marked across his entire body with the sign of his commitment to God, had claimed me and my grandfather, and all those who have died, as his own.  And we know that this symbol of death is actually the gateway to life – a resurrected life in Christ Jesus.

We were all marked with the cross. The same one that had marked my grandfather when he was baptized is the same one that marked me as an infant, and marks me again this evening.  

This cross, no matter how temporary tonight, traces invisible lines that are more important than any tattoo.  I don’t feel embarrassed to walk out of the church with the cross on my forehead anymore.  I am marked - we are marked - with the cross of Christ forever. Amen.

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