One young girl was seen coming out of Church yesterday after having received ashes protecting her forehead from the wind so that the ashes wouldn't disappear! She actually had the right idea! Even though the charcoal particles will have washed away (hopefully) by today, the sign of the Cross should be an enduring one for each of us.
The Sign of the Cross plays a crucial role in the Church's sacraments. We are signed with the cross by our parents and godparents just before our baptisms, and moments later after the water has been poured, signed with sacred chrism to be marked for Christ. This sign is re-affirmed at our Confirmation, again with sacred chrism. The priest anoints our head with oil in the sign of the cross whenever we celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick.
Can we even begin to count the numbers of times we sign ourselves at other times of prayer? The beginning of each mass and at the final blessing, at every liturgy or prayer service, whenever we pray, at the proclamation of the Gospel - so, so many times.
But sometimes it seems as though the wind has swept the cross away from our minds. Suffering in our lives or the lives of those we love is so hard to accept and often seems unfair. In today's Gospel, Jesus admonishes us: take up your cross and follow me. He doesn't promise a sweetheart deal up front, with the tough part of discipleship revealed later. The cross, there it is!We know, even at the beginning of Lent, that the cross leads to resurrection, so it is not with a sense of gloom or despair that we embrace the cross and follow Christ on his journey to eternal life.
Salvific suffering, suffering which saves, can only be endured by Jesus, but in uniting our sufferings with His, our suffering can be transformed. Contemporary theologians and preachers have a challenge before them in explaining this; it's not an easy message in today's world. One of the best places to begin reflection on this mystery is Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Salvifici Doloris. It makes wonderful spiritual reading anytime, but especially at the beginning of Lent.