The Cross on Our Foreheads

Illustration by Asia Cunningham

My first Ash Wednesday at Columbia was uncomfortable. What was customary back in predominantly Catholic Paraguay, made me feel like an alien here. Bearing a cross on my forehead throughout the day was not easy. I was intimidated by what people might think of this dude who still believed there was something beyond what science could prove, and who still trusted the Church despite the mistakes made in her name. Most people on campus probably didn’t judge me when they saw me that day—they might not even have noticed the ashes. But this experience made me realize I was not confident enough in bearing that symbol because I did not fully understand why it was meaningful for me to do it in the first place.

These feelings of self-consciousness were nothing like what I had experienced in Catholic school. Every year, on a seemingly random day of February or March, hundreds of other students would spend the day with a cross of ashes on their foreheads. It was a beautiful sight. There was something about all of us bearing the same symbol on our skin that captivated me every Ash Wednesday. It reminded me of the universality of the Church—how, despite our differences, we are all united by our belief in the passion and resurrection of our Lord, symbolized by the cross. But there is a more comprehensive narrative behind the celebration of Ash Wednesday, and until it made me uncomfortable, I did not feel the need to unravel it.

Typically, before ashes are placed on our foreheads, a verse from Genesis 3 is recited to us: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is not a particularly encouraging reminder to receive, albeit a necessary one for all of us—especially when we spend so much time making decisions. The most ambitious of us might spend a lot of time considering where our next internship will be, while the rest of us worry with choosing what to have for dinner each day. Yet in this light, all of this is meaningless.

Contemplating our mortality is not enjoyable, but living a life that ignores death misses the point. We would not be living the same way if we were never to die, since to an extent, with unlimited time comes unlimited possibilities. The fact that our time on earth is limited gives meaning to the way we spend it. Time being the scarcest resource at Columbia makes dedicating some of it to others a precious gift. In this way, Ash Wednesday calls us to focus on what really matters on our path to eternal life, rather than to seek worldly goals for selfish reasons. This reminder of our mortality forces us to confront our priorities. It calls us to place others’ needs above our routine, to prioritize our health before our grades, and to let go of our worldly anxieties.

This verse, as part of God’s curse to Adam and Eve after eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, reminds us that everything around us, ourselves included, was once subjected to futility by our own God. We are fallen, sinful beings and we need to repent. Although genuine belief in Jesus Christ is enough for our sins to be forgiven, we must repent, for authentic faith is inseparable from repentance.

In the Old Testament, people such as Job showed repentance from their sins by wearing sackcloth and covering themselves in ashes. In a similar way, ashes cover our foreheads as a sign that Lent will be a time of examination of conscience, repentance, and special exercises of self-discipline. Our dirty foreheads, uncovered for the world to see, make repentance all the more sincere. The cross on our foreheads not only states that Jesus saved us, but that He had to because we are incapable of doing it ourselves. This symbol is meant to serve as a public declaration that we are fallen. Every Ash Wednesday, Christians are encouraged to be bold in publicly recognizing their sinfulness, alongside their willingness to repent and change.

Ash Wednesday also gives us a time to mourn a world where our efforts to improve seem meaningless. I need a time to mourn because I cannot ignore my brokenness and that of those around me. I cannot spend all my days solely rejoicing in what God gave to me, merely glossing over the fact of how undeserving I am of it all. My rejoicing would not be genuine without first confronting my sorrow, and my faith would not be authentic without first repenting for my sins.

Ash Wednesday is the grim beginning of the Lenten season that culminates in Resurrection Sunday, our true cause for rejoicing and believing. Jesus’ resurrection is what allows us to be confident in the hope that our mourning will not last for long. Our bodies will return to dust, but they will rise again. The risen Christ tells us that because there are better things meant for us, it is reasonable to mourn our sinfulness and mortality. We should be unashamed in bearing His name and His symbols, for a life without Him ends in nothing but dust.

If you’re a Christian who usually celebrates Ash Wednesday, join me in reflecting upon its meaning. If you’re one who is not used to doing so, give it a try. And if you’re not a Christian and see someone bearing a cross on his forehead today, ask him why. If that someone you see is me, I’d be more than happy to answer.