Here’s a name you probably didn’t expect to hear on Ash Wednesday: Martin Hildebrandt.
You’ve probably never heard of him. But New York historians record that he was the very first tattoo artist in New York City, setting up shop in 1870 on James Street in what is now Chinatown.
What began as an exotic form of body decoration has now taken the city and the world by storm.
By one count, more than 145 million Americans now have tattoos — about a third of the population.
Some consider tattoos to be an art, a form of personal expression. For others, it signifies belonging to a particular group — being part of the fraternity, for example, or even a gang. For others, it is a countercultural statement.
But all of it, in some way, relates to what we are about to experience this morning.
Because, in a sense, we are about to receive a tattoo, a marking on our brows — an emblem that is not a decoration, but a declaration.
It declares three things:
First, these ashes declare we are human. That we are dust and one day we will be dust again. These ashes tell anyone who sees them that we know the clock is ticking, that our time is limited. They declare that we know this much: one day, we will be gone.
Secondly, they declare that because we are human, we are sinners. Flawed. Weak. We are not beautiful, perfect creatures. We bear the stain of sin.
Thirdly, these ashes declare that because we are human and sinners, we have work to do. We want to do it while we can. And the work begins here and now.
It is the great work of reforming our lives to make ourselves ready for Easter, and the bright hope of the Resurrection. These ashes declare that we want to be better than we are, through prayer, fasting and alms-giving.
These ashes are also a very public declaration that we are works in progress.
They remind anyone who sees them that we are more than just people who follow Jesus Christ. We are people who intend to spend these 40 days trying to live more like him — remembering daily what he gave for us, so that we can give more to others.
That giving can and should be more difficult than just giving up chocolate or skipping dessert.
As I said: We have work to do.
Where do we begin?
Try this: forgive someone who has done you wrong.
Pray for someone you hate.
As the Gospel just reminded us two Sundays ago: love your enemy and pray for your persecutor.
Reach out to someone who is ignored or disliked — whether it’s at work, at school, at home. Let them know they have purpose and dignity.
A popular song right now says “We don’t talk about Bruno.” Who is the Bruno in your world? Don’t just talk about him. Talk to him. Dare to let people who are on the margins know that they matter — and that God loves them.
Visit someone who is lonely.
Reconcile with someone you are alienated from — whether it’s a friend, a neighbor, or God.
Especially God. Celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with the Father who loves us. Go to confession.
Pray for victims of violence.
I said it Sunday, I say it again today:
Pray for Ukraine.
Pray for a world at war. Work and pray for peace.
Pray that we each become better than we are. Because these marks we bear say that much. They tell the world that we are trying to be people who are more like Christ.
People of sacrifice, of surrender, of selflessness, of love.
But also people who want to move beyond the dusty ashes of Lent to feel anew the fire of the Easter Vigil.
We want to be people who burn with the light of Christ.
That is our prayer, our hope.
Finally, as you prepare to leave here this morning, do something vitally important: remember.
Remember how Lent began. Remember what these ashes mean.
Because tomorrow, these marks should be more than a smudge on the pillow. They should leave a lasting mark on each of us — a silent reminder of our call to holiness, our call to be people on fire. Our call to conversion — conversion lived out with hope and trust in God’s mercy, and our own desire to be better tomorrow than we are today.
It’s just that simple. And just that hard.
These ashes are not a decoration, but a declaration. A declaration of our humanity, our weakness — but also our hope. They matter.
We need to make them make a difference.
And in our world.