Symbols on our skin

I went to church tonight and had a symbol of ashes placed on my forehead. But this post is not about church, religiosity, or my own theological perspective. Skip all of that. For the sake of this post, the ashes were just the catalyst for a thought experiment. (Especially if you find all of those philosophical questions hard to ignore in the context of religious symbols — you, in particular, please skip all of that baggage and keep reading.) This post is about choice, how easy it is for symbols to be misinterpreted, and privilege.

All of the context needed for now is to say that Ash Wednesday is a special day on the calendar for me; I marked it by attending the Presbyterian church I attend every Sunday; and at the church service tonight I chose to receive a symbolic smudge of ashes on my forehead. I’ll avoid any discussion of the traditional meaning of these things as well as my personal interpretation of them — all of which would only distract from my message right now. To that end maybe I’ll try phrasing it even more simply: tonight I chose to associate myself with a community of people by wearing a symbol on my skin. That’s pretty sterile, but hopefully it lays the groundwork for where I’m headed.

Here’s the thought experiment I want to focus on: if the service had been at 7:00 AM instead of 7:00 PM, I might not have chosen to receive that symbol.

I wouldn’t want to wear the symbol of ashes on my face throughout the day for fear of dealing with how people might react to it. Here are some of the potential reactions I’ve imagined:  Continue reading