There’s still ash on the back of my hand. The sign of the cross smells like campfire.
For some reason it feels weird that Ash Wednesday reminds me of hotdogs and marshmallows and Tonka pies. Less weird that it reminds me of kids singing praise songs around a bonfire at summer camp in Michigan.
It’s a very visible sign, ashes. But it’s doing something to the other senses too. Feels chalky. Looks birch-y. Smells ashy. Tastes —
— no, not really.
Religion is a sensory experience as much as it is a spiritual one. Bread and wine and church chairs. Singing and trembling and not knowing what to do with one’s hands. And now, still, ashes.
I don’t want to wash it off. I will sleep with the smell of ash. Surely Jesus did. Surely all the apostles and the Church fathers and the martyrs did, for they lived in a world lit only by fire, and the smoke was of their clothes and forever in their skin. It’s perhaps a good reminder of where it is we’ve come from: a real place with real flesh and real smells.
I also don’t want to wash it off because it feels strange to wipe away the dirt so soon. Feels not right. I know, I know, Christ has washed us clean, done away with that smokey scent and given us the smell of roses or lemons or spearmint or whatever the modern-day equivalent of frankincense is, but that’s not until Easter. It’s good to let the ash sit, let it sink in. To remember this is where we came from. This is what we were. Ashes crushed to earth instead of incense rising to heaven.
It’s all very symbolic.
So maybe leave the ashes on.
I’m not saying don’t shower until Holy Week. I’m saying don’t rush to forget the ashes. Don’t hasten to rid yourself of the smell, as though you yourself can erase your dirt. Let the symbolism simmer. Complete the smoldering metaphor, for only Christ can make us clean.
Leave the ashes on. Not so you can wallow in sin, but so you remember it, so it sinks in, so when it’s gone, you really come to feel the difference.