Mrs. Wilson, my mother-in-law at the time, was a volunteer receptionist at a hospital. One Spring-like day a Roman Catholic priest appeared at her desk seeking directions. She was uncomfortable. For a long second she debated whether or not to call the priest's attention to a problem with his appearance. Being a southern lady with refined manners, she hesitated. Then, she blurted out, "I hate to say anything, but you have a rather heavy smudge on your forehead. The priest chuckled, "I know, it's Ash Wednesday." This occurred in a Buffalo, New York hospital, a city heavily Roman Catholic. Mrs. Wilson was from the deep south where Roman Catholics were barely visible. The imposition of ashes was a rite unfamiliar to her.
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. Sometime, on that day, my family will kneel at the altar of the church while our pastor, or Carlene's Episcopal priest, will smear our foreheads with ashes, intoning, "remember your mortality."
Our foreheads are the signboards of what lies within.
In the Jewish tradition, phylacteries (small leather cases containing selected verses of scripture on parchment) are worn on foreheads as signs of a covenant with God, fulfilling a commandment.
Those of us not in the Hebrew tradition wear unmade phylacteries as well ... visible symbols of what lies beneath.
We wear beads of perspiration on our foreheads. If we go digging in our gardens, sit hunched over a work table, or stand bent over a kitchen sink, beads of perspiration symbolize our being at labor. It is a proud symbol, for labor is an act of honor. In our society of oft-twisted values, labor is easily looked upon as a necessity, not a privilege. Such persons see a good life as one where one is always at leisure. Labor is the magic wand by which the world is made more desirable and more beautiful. Behind many homes are gardens or lawns where gardens could be. Behind every beautiful garden there are rivers of perspiration, left by weeding of flower beds and rock pathways, pruning of shrubs, mulching of plants, and by hand fertilizing. Red, unblemished apples hang from fruit trees that have been sprayed and trimmed. Well manicured lawns result in uniform grasses and well-beaded brows. Where there are no beads of sweat, backyards become jungled with weeds, encumbered with thorns and thistles, and are swallowed up in maverick grasses and vines. God made the world beautiful by hand (or mouth) and seeing it good gave him great pleasure. In his wisdom, he left creation in need of a caretaker to continually restore what he made perfect. We are partners with God in labor. No observation of beauty can approach the satisfaction of creating beauty. Minutes ago, I completed transplanting twelve shrubs to my front yard. After the soil had been tamped around each shrub's roots and long before pails of water had been added, I baptized each shrub with the drops of perspiration falling from my forehead. When summer comes and the shrubs are healthy and green I will take additional pleasure in knowing that such beauty came from the sweat of my brow.
We wear creases on our foreheads. Creases furrowed there by stress and anxiety. When we speak of troubled brows we are spotlighting frail spirits. The secret of positive living is not in seeking ways to escape problems (which cannot be done), but rather by having interior resources with which to face and handle problems. Sometimes, stress is of our making and other times it is innocently forced upon us. In either case, spiritual strength can build barricades to prevent its spreading. Scars in the lives of some are scars of defeat. Scars in the lives of others may be scars of victories won.
Furrows on our foreheads reveal stress and anxiety; tenure of the creases tell how we handled it.
Foreheads become descriptive of our cultural tastes -highbrow or lowbrow -the Niles Cranes or the Bart Simpsons.
Niles Crane is the definitive pretentious highbrow. He is a coffee gourmet demanding each cup of cafe latte be enhanced with the proper pinch of cinnamon and exact measure of foam. He can smell the cork of an opened bottle of wine and immediately identify the vineyard from which it came and discern the year it was bottled. His love of grand opera throws him in company with his most cultured and society-driven acquaintances.
At the other extreme is Bart Simpson. He is the definitive lowbrow. His aura is to be insensitive, disrespectful, slovenly, and one who takes pride in being an underachiever. His conversation is often crude.
Neither of these is an accurate portrayal of a highbrow or a lowbrow. The culture in which we are reared determines our tastes in food, drink, art, music and recreation. Neither ought ever to look condescendingly on the other, but become appreciative of diversity. To accept all legitimate venues of living is to experience life in a broad spectrum.
Whether we are seen as highbrow or lowbrow is an indication of the persons we are beneath.
We wear our personna on our foreheads.
Our journey with God begins with our ancient Hebrew spiritual forefathers and their phylactories on their foreheads. Our journey with God ends, according to the last book in the Bible, with the numbers six-hundred-sixty-six imprinted on the brows of those who never found their way back to their creator. The forehead becomes the passport.
I'm eager to get the ashes smeared on my forehead tomorrow night. It will tell the world who I am.