Dean Moore, the dean of BU’s School of Theology, held a class for STH students today in the Howard Thurman Center discussing Howard Thurman’s notion of “common ground.” Because I work at the center, I was able to catch a few words at the beginning of her program. She started the class, appropriately, by commenting briefly on Ash Wednesday, saying, “Ash Wednesday is a liminal ritual where everyone is radically equal.” Now, I’ve heard Ash Wednesday discussed in a lot of different ways; growing up in a Catholic school, observing Lent was a mandatory reflection. We looked inward, analyzed our past year with God, sacrificed to remind ourselves about the 40 days Christ spent fasting in solitude, and took personal moments of silence every Friday morning. But, I’ve never seen Lent as a group activity. It makes sense though. “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.” We all have something in common: we are all born naturally from a mother and die at the end of our lives. This is our most basic “common ground.”
Looking around campus today, I’ve been surprised how many BU students have ash-marked foreheads. New England is the most secular region of the US, but at the moment Boston looks downright Christian. I realize that I often assume my classmates have no religion. Today has proven me wrong, because today is the only day of the year that Christians are visibly marked. Imagine all the other students who are Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist, or, for that matter, part of a Christian denomination that doesn't celebrate Ash Wednesday, who are as unidentified today as the Christians I am noticing are normally.
The ritualistic Imposition of Ashes exposes a commonality between people that I feel is comfortingly unifying. And because most of the sects of Christianity celebrate Ash Wednesday in similar ways, the denominational affiliations of the people I see walking down Comm Ave are indeterminable. For me, this is a reminder that even though different types of Christianity teach concepts with which I disagree, we all believe that Christ existed, and was resurrected, and we believe it strongly enough to walk around with (arguably embarrassing) ashes on our foreheads. It’s also a nice, gentle reminder that we are all, marked or not, equal in God’s eyes.