The act of labelling, marking or branding is an act that sets apart the object labelled, marked or branded. It is also an act that calls attention to the label, mark or brand which will, in turn, inform people of the reason for the label, mark or brand.
In the book "The Scarlet Letter" (or the film, if you prefer), the leading character Hester is forced to wear the letter "A" on her at all times as a sign that she is an adulterer; the scarlet letter identifies and labels her as a sinner. As a result, she is ostracized and excluded from society--set apart, if you will, but in a different sense.
The tradition of marking our foreheads with ash on Ash Wednesday, which ushers in the 40-day period of lent, is similar to us bearing our own scarlet letter. It is a brand, a mark, a label. The mark on our forehead is intended to remind us--and all who see us--that we are sinners and, like Hester, we deserve to be labeled as such and also to be set apart--ostracized and kept from God's kingdom. Unlike Hester, we wear it only for a day--or less. The symbolism of our fragility and weakness as a people--the ash or dust from which we came is externally imprinted on us--helps us to begin lent by remembering that we who have sinned and are capable of greater sin are deserving of punishment.
The ashes remind us of who we are.
The ashes also remind us of whose we are.
The practice of branding cattle or other animals with the initials of the owner indicates ownership of the cattle or other animals. In a similar way, the ashes we receive are not only a mark of our sinfulness but also a label of ownership as well. We go through the day not with initials but with the sign of the cross--the mark of Christ. Through this mark, we remind ourselves, if only for a day, that we belong to Christ; we are His because all of us, though great sinners, were saved by Jesus's death on the cross.
Its no coincidence that the first reading for today, the day before Ash Wednesday, reminds us of how we were created and who created us. It is a reminder to us that we, who were created in God's image and likeness, belong to God and that it is time for us to realize that.
So, tomorrow, as we receive the mark of ashes on our forehead, let us remind ourselves of who we are and whose we are. Let us humbly reflect on why we are being labeled and set apart. First, lets remind ourselves who we are--sinners. Second, lets remind ourselves whose we are--God's.
One thing more, perhaps. Ash Wednesday also reminds us who God is.
The ashes remind us of Jesus, this God who is holy and set apart, willingly allowed Himself to be ostracized, ridiculed, mocked, and labelled as a sinner, to be put to death among criminals and to be publicly rejected by His own people; the ashes remind us that Jesus who became one of us did so purposedly to claim us, great sinners though we are and continue to be, label us and set us apart for God that we may be redeemed, forgiven and loved by our Everlasting and All-loving God.