From the Letter to the Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us . . . .
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 12:1 (NRSV) – March 5, 2014.)
Many years ago, when I was a child growing up in Las Vegas, Nevada, my dad and I went fishing on Lake Mead. I was five years old, but already a pretty good swimmer. After we’d caught a few bass, we decided to go swimming.
I think we must have been somewhere near one of the marinas, because some time during that swim I encountered a slick of oil or motor fuel and found myself coated with a smell film of petroleum distillate of some sort. I tried several times to rinse it off, but once it got on my skin, it wasn’t coming off. My dad and I ruined a couple of my mother’s towels wiping it off, but it didn’t really wipe off.
On the drive home (the seat in my dad’s Thunderbird protected by another of my mom’s towels), the stuff dried, my skin got sticky and kind of stiff feeling. At home, my mother scrubbed me until my skin burned, but that petroleum odor still seemed to stick around for days – other people couldn’t smell it, but I sure could.
When I read this verse of the letter to the Hebrews, I think of that oily stuff — “the sin that clings so closely” — no matter how much rinsing, how much wiping, how much scrubbing, it’s still there. Others may not see it, but we can feel it. Others may not see it, but we can smell it. We know it’s there! The author of the letter encourages us to “lay it aside,” but that is easier said than done. On our own, we can’t lay it aside; we can’t rinse, wipe, or scrub it off. It is permanent! . . . Or is it?
Today is the Day of Ashes, that Wednesday forty days before Easter when we symbolize that sin and our own mortality with a smudge of oily ash on our foreheads — in the same place where the priest at our baptism or the bishop at our confirmation places a cross of oil marking us a Christ’s own, we are marked again with a reminder that we are nonetheless soiled by sin and liable unto death . . . Or are we?
The chrism, the holy oil marking us as an adopted child of God, is there first. Like a shield or a protective skin, it guards us from being permanently stained. Because of that protective buffer (what St. Paul might have called “the armor of light” — Romans 13:12 — or even “the whole armor of God” — Ephesians 6:11) the sin which clings so closely is not permanent; we are not permanently soiled and liable to death! Through the power of Christ, that sin can be set aside.
The smudge is merely a temporary reminder, not a permanent stain.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.