Among many fundamentalist Christians, frenzy over end times prophecy reached a fever pitch in the 80's and 90's. Paranoia concerning world events grew as the various political spheres appeared increasingly destabilized. The instinct to align current news with certain passages of the Bible led many conference speakers to peer into their crystal ball (i.e. ambiguous sections of biblical prophecy) and speculate on what world events could be expected soon.
One of the greatest concerns raised by fundamentalists was the nature of "the mark of the Beast." Supposedly, a future Anti-Christ would polarize the world into two groups: those that would swear allegiance to him and those that would not. According to this theory, loyalty to this Anti-Christ would be made evident by a "mark" on their body - either on the hand or the forehead. This mark would be necessary for conducting any commerce, be it buying or selling. The paranoia was palpable. Normally quite reasonable people became concerned about using this new thing called an "ATM card" because of how it could become "the mark of the Beast" at some future date. Fanciful speculations abounded regarding what form "the mark" might take (most of which would now be considered antiquated technology). Many who claimed to follow Christ spent most of their energy seemingly concerned about how NOT to advance the agenda of "the Anti-Christ."
Grotesquely missing from such hysteria is the concern for what mark I WANT, instead of the "mark" I don't want.
Ash Wednesday services were held in liturgical, Christian churches throughout the world yesterday. From those services, followers of Jesus Christ emerged with the "ashes of contrition" forming the sign of the Cross on their head. The symbolism of ashes as an element of lamentation has precedent dating back to such obvious biblical examples of David, Daniel and even the Gentiles of Nineveh in response to the preaching of Jonah. The ashes convey the sentiments of lowliness, of shame and of grief over the effects of personal, familial, national and even global sin. Rightly does Ash Wednesday inaugurate the season of Lent, in which contemplative reflection is focused on one's need for a Savior, and what is it about my sin that required his violent death in my place to achieve my redemption?
Christians devoted to the God who is, that sought to worship in this manner conducted since ancient times, left with a "mark." How irrelevant is "the mark of the Beast" made by receiving "the mark of the Christ?" What concern must we allot to a supposed "Beast" when the One who can extinguish said "Beast" leaves his very own mark on us?
Having received the "mark" of the Savior, I was pleased that the priest recognized this as my first time participating in this catholic practice. "I hope you don't mind," he later shared, "but when it's someone's first time I like to give them a really good one" (referring to the cross now smeared on my forehead). Mind?! It was incredibly endearing to me to accept "the mark" vigorously applied. I regret that such an event occurs merely once a year (but such is true of many events in the liturgical calendar). One might think of waiting a year for the next such moment, but then would be quickly distracted by the next meaningful event in the Christian calendar to follow.
Accepting "the Mark" of Christ is a joy and a privilege. One does not mark themselves, but are marked by the priest. This provides a living picture of God's sovereign prerogative to "mark" whom he chooses for his own glory. Nevertheless, leaving the church, I did not want to stop anywhere, but instead to go straight home. Since "the mark" is given (NOT earned), it cannot represent anything to boast about. It is not something to go out and show everyone. Close relatives and friends see "the mark" on you, but it's greatest power is seen in the mirror. Peering at my reflection, it sinks in that due to no merit of my own I've been "marked" by Christ. "From dust you came, and to dust you shall return," says the priest when smearing the ash on my head... and because of "the Mark" I am Christ's until then and beyond.