“‘Even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” (Joel 2:12-13)
I must admit that as a child, I was fascinated by tattoos. For the life of me, I could not figure out why the temporary tattoos I got out of the box of Cracker Jacks washed off after a day or two, while the tattoos on my next door neighbor’s arm always stayed no matter how many baths he took. “After all,” I reasoned to myself, “he’s a grown man…he bathes every day! I wonder where he buys his Cracker Jacks?!?” I remember vowing to one day have a tattoo that wouldn’t come off in the bath, and I kept that vow until I came to understand the process of acquiring a permanent tattoo. Then, much like my temporary tattoos, my desire to be permanently marked (with needles!) quickly faded.
In my childish mind I had grossly underestimated the level of commitment required to allow oneself to be permanently marked. As I consider this process today, I am reminded of the old adage about commitment: “When it comes to a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is wholly committed.” Even today, as an adult, I find that my mindset hasn’t changed.
However, in all honesty I must admit that this attitude (involvement versus commitment) has leeched over from things as superficial as tattoos, into areas of my life that are much more important. I am involved in worthy projects, devotion, and service, but I find that I lack the dedication to be wholly committed to these things…things to which Scripture calls me to be wholly devoted. In other words, I don’t mind being temporarily marked, but I lack the commitment to allow these things to penetrate my skin and become part of who I am, and not just a mark of what I do.
This past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, marked the beginning of Lent. Some churches will have an Ash Wednesday service. In this service, all are invited to join in the “Imposition of the Ashes” where one can come forward and be marked on the forehead with the sign of the cross. It’s typically a very solemn, worshipful event, and can be very moving as the congregation draws close to the Lord.
Coming forward and taking the mark of the cross is easy, and painless. The outward mark is very temporary, even more so than those tattoos we all wore as children. The question that we all face in participating in this worship service is not whether we should take the mark, but rather to what depth will we allow the mark to penetrate our souls. Are we willing to allow the mark to seep through our skin and pierce our heart, or are we content just to let it linger temporarily on the surface of our skin?
The prophet Joel entreats us to tear our hearts and not our clothes. That is to say, take the mark of repentance and allow it to change you, and not simply be a mark of religion. The challenge of Ash Wednesday, of Lent, and of Christianity as a whole is to allow our heart to be permanently marked, “tattooed” if you will, with the sign of the cross. In doing so, the difference in our lives becomes evident in the difference we make in the lives of others for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Are you involved, or are you wholly committed?