In Herman Melville’s book Moby-Dick, the narrator, Ishmael, watched with interest the religious obligation of “Fasting and Humiliation” of his whaling companion Queequeg. While many might have viewed Queequeg’s rituals as strange and even comical, Ishmael did not. He observed in them something universal and says, “Heaven have mercy on us all . . . for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending” (Moby-Dick or The Whale [New York: W. W. Norton, 1976], p. 81).
Ash Wednesday is the beginning step towards Lent and the humble acknowledgement that we are not only “dreadfully cracked about the head” but also about the heart and spirit. For forty days, we are asked to be honest about ourselves to ourselves. Honest about what we think of others. Honest about our relationship to mammon. Honest about how we treat others. Honest about our fears. Honest about what we place our hope in. Ultimately, it is about being honest to God. At some point in these forty days, we should utter the words of Ishmael—“Heaven have mercy on us all.”
Whenever we reach this point, what started as a Lenten journey of personal and egocentric introspection transforms into the recognition that mercy is not just for me but also for all. The journey of Lent can create within us an empathetic spirit for those, who like us, are “made from dust and destiny for dust.” Our own flaws and failings can help us live more humanly, more Christ-like, with others who are also flawed and failed.
Ash Wednesday starts with the strangest of rituals—one that is almost comical, the imposition of ashes. A finger will be dipped into ashes, and a dark, irregular cross will be drawn on our foreheads. For those who are dreadfully cracked about the head, heart and spirit, and who need mending, these ashes are the healing balm of Christ. It is the beginning of the mending.