Church signs have become an art form all their own. Many of us have seen the inspiring and witty words posted in front of houses of worship as we drive around town or visit relatives. They are meant to grab our attention and make us think.
Some clever ones are “Wise men still seek him.” “Sign broken; message inside”. “We are prayer conditioned.” and “Eternity - smoking or non-smoking?”
Another witty one you may have seen is: “If you are looking for a sign, here it is.”
We have gathered here today to mark ourselves with a sign - the sign of the cross in ashes. It is a sign we are all familiar with. But what does that sign mean? Why do we begin every Lent drawing this dramatic symbol on our foreheads?
The sign we will be marked with is a sign of repentance. It means that we see that we need to change, we have not lived up to our baptismal vows and we are begging God to forgive us and help us.
As we look out onto our world, we can probably all agree that something needs to change. We cannot keep going on as we are in a society marred by violence, greed and division. Politicians and pundits are scrambling for a solution. How can we build a culture which values human life, helps the poor and supports real and lasting human development?
As followers of Jesus, we have the answer but it is not a quick fix or easy solution. The answer is conversion. Each of us in our hearts must change. No laws, no government structures, no civil institutions can give us lasting peace and freedom if we are carrying around hatred, greed or malice within us. If anything is going to change, then each of us must change.
If we are looking for a sign that it is time for us to change, we need look no further than the sign of the cross we will be tracing on our foreheads. Now is the time. This season of Lent is the opportunity God is giving us to become people who radiate the joy that comes from knowing His word and putting it into practice. Let us take full advantage of it. As Saint Paul tells us in today’s second reading: “[W]e appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain... Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
The sign of the cross we draw on our foreheads, however, is not magic. It has no power to change us. It is an outward symbol of a real conversion that must take place within us. By the time we go to bed tonight, these ashes will have worn off. They will no longer be visible. But what about our innermost self? Will that be changed for the better? Will we have a renewed purpose to follow Jesus, to keep His teaching, no matter what the cost? That will be the true test of whether this sign of ashes will have any meaning or produce any real effect in our lives.
By signing ourselves with ashes, we are confessing to God and acknowledging to one another that we are sinners. We are acknowledging that it is time for us to change. We cannot continue living as if God did not exist. At the same time, these ashes are not a sign of condemnation but one of hope because the cross we mark ourselves with is also the sign of God’s love. “God so loved the world that He sent His Son not to condemn the world but to save the world.” Jesus came to save us. If we reach out to Him on this day of grace and beg Him to have mercy on us, we will begin to change. He has the power to do it no matter how far gone we may think we are. Most importantly, He desires to do it because He loves us.
Now is the time for us to repent of our sins and to believe in the good news. Now is the time to put away our selfishness and follow Jesus in the power of His Spirit. Now is the time to embrace the cross and its promise of new life. Today is the day to make a new beginning, not looking back on the failures of the past but fixing our eyes on Jesus who calls us to a fuller, more abundant future.