All Saints, Dorval
February 26, 2020
But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
When I visit people who are sick in the hospital, I will usually offer them anointing with healing oil as well as prayer and communion. We read scriptures that refer to the healing of the sick, then I lay hands on them and anoint them with oil that has been consecrated to that purpose, using the words, “I lay my hands upon you in the Name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, beseeching him to uphold you and fill you with his grace, that you may know the healing power of his love,” and then, “I anoint you with oil in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Peter’s first Ash Wednesday ashes, 2015 (age 7)
Once, shortly before Ash Wednesday, the church I was serving held a whole healing service in which all the participants shared this ritual with each other. As I traced a cross with the holy oil on the foreheads of those who attended, and watched them turn to each other and do the same, the parallel with the ritual of Ash Wednesday ashes struck me forcefully. We anoint for healing by tracing a cross on the forehead; and we remind ourselves of our mortality with the same action.
The connection is only strengthened by the fact that the ashes, formed by the burning of the palms from last Palm Sunday, are actually mixed with a small amount of that same holy oil that we use to anoint for healing. The practical reason for this is they wouldn’t stick to our skin very well if they were just ashes!
And yet, even that pragmatic step has clear symbolic connotations: without the balm of healing, without the smooth and welcome touch of God’s love and care, the rough, dusty reminder of mortality doesn’t “stick,” spiritually.
We are unlikely to repent and change if we simply feel judged and condemned. We need to be able to trust that the God who is reminding us of our sinfulness and our finitude, also loves us beyond measure and wills for us, and for the whole cosmos, to be healed and redeemed.
When we anoint with oil for healing, we are not praying only for medical cures to physical ailments, but for healing for the whole human person: body, mind, soul, and spirit. And even more than that: we are not only praying for healing for the human person, but for all of God’s creation.
We are praying for the end to bodily pain and suffering, for the relief of mental distress and emotional anguish, for the healing of those who are broken in spirit. We are praying for the healing of relationships, for the reconciliation of enemies. We are praying for the hungry to be fed, the needy to be cared for, the lonely to be blessed, and the lost to be found.
And we are praying for wars to cease, for oppression to end, and for all God’s creatures to live in harmony with each other and with this planet.
In the same way, when we trace a cross of ash on each other’s foreheads, we are not simply begging God to overlook our sins and failings. We are seeking, and offering, forgiveness and repentance in the largest senses of those words. In the words of the psalm, we are seeking to be washed through and through, to foster a right spirit within ourselves, to have truth in our inmost beings and wisdom in our secret hearts, and to reclaim the joy of salvation.
The echo between ashes and healing is not accidental, or forced; the two are two sides of the same coin.
And so perhaps too much is made of the contradiction, in the Gospel reading assigned for today, between what we read and what we do. Because in putting the ashes on our foreheads, we are not just “looking dismal” and “disfiguring our faces” like the hypocrites whom Jesus criticizes; we are also, in that same act, anointing ourselves for healing, putting oil on our faces and cleansing ourselves – as Jesus calls us to do in the same Gospel passage. The disfigurement for repentance, and the anointing for healing, are not opposites, but one and the same.
And both the cross of ashes and the cross of anointing find the source of their meaning in a third cross, traced on our foreheads when our lives were first claimed by God, an action that I performed with little Emma, in her huge poofy white dress, on Sunday. With her head still wet from the threefold pouring of the water, I drew a cross on her forehead in the other holy oil, the oil of chrism, symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit, as I pronounced the words: “I sign you with the cross and mark you as Christ’s own for ever.”
It is that sealing with the cross that grounds our understanding of our need for healing and forgiveness, and God’s gracious and generous response to those needs. In baptism, God declares that we are God’s beloved children. The healing that God offers is for the good of our selves – bodies, minds, souls, and spirits – and the good of the cosmos.
The forgiveness that God offers is not accusatory and punitive, but rather a helpful reminder that we are finite, that we are not God, that we have our place in the world alongside the rest of God’s glorious and mortal creation – and also, that returning to dust is not the end of the story, but only the beginning.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
I anoint you with oil in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
I sign you with the cross and mark you as Christ’s own for ever.
Three crosses. Three ways in which we are marked with the symbol of the God who was made flesh, died, and rose again. Three ways in which we are reminded of our need for healing; of our need for forgiveness; but below and around and above it all, of our essential belovedness.