by Christine Sunderland
Today is Ash Wednesday, a penitential day that Christians have observed since the eighth century, signifying the first day of Lent. In our local church, a cross is drawn on our foreheads with ashes from the burned palms saved from last year’s Palm Sunday.
Christians are a people of powerful symbols. The ashen cross is recognized immediately to be the cross of Christ’s crucifixion, a cross of death that becomes a cross of life. The cross, especially the cross without the corpus – the empty cross – over time has become synonymous with the empty tomb and resurrection, with eternal life.
Yet the cross of crucifixion in the first-century Roman Empire meant only public shame, defeat, and a slow painful death. Crucifixions were public executions that took hours and sometimes days, the crucified hanging naked from crosses lining the roads. They could be seen on hillsides, a warning to the public. There was no glory in the cross.
As the church grew and time dulled the memory of Our Lord’s ordeal, the meaning of the cross changed. Today, from the distance of two thousand years, the cross is a sacred sign of salvation and the love of a living God. But the suffering still lies within its wood, its ash, speaking silently to our hearts.
Just so the novelist uses symbols to speak silently to the reader. Christian symbols weave through history, adding a dimension of time to the story. My stories are set in the present day but they grapple with ancient truths. In The Magdalene Mystery, a young woman seeks her legacy in the churches of Rome and finds answers in the Apostles’ Creed, discovering who Mary Magdalene was and whom she saw on that first Easter morning. The questions asked are clothed with today’s griefs and sorrows, but the answers live in eternal reality. All of time is encapsulated in and on the page, and this is aided through the use of symbols.
This union of time and eternity is reflected in those ashes drawn on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Ashes signify death – ashes to ashes, dust to dust, as spoken in the Anglican funeral service. The pastor draws the cross with his thumb, saying, “Remember o man, that dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.” Death is pressed into our skin, the ashes sinking into our flesh. The cross enters our minds as well as our hearts.
We have been anointed with Christ. We have been reborn with this ashen cross of death transformed to life, like the ancient phoenix rising out of the ashes. So too we rise from our knees with foreheads branded, to give public witness to who we are, followers of the Christ, the one who died on this ashen cross, the one defeated death to bear us with him. Our foreheads witness to these eternal truths, and we are unashamed.
We populate our fiction with these sacred symbols, symbols that resonate with believers and unbelievers alike. We draw them with words on our pages, in the same way the pastor marks our foreheads. We paint settings and backstories with sacred images to subtly make Christ present on the page. We orchestrate action around the symbol, using it to reflect theme and character, pointing to hope and resurrection.
In my sixth novel, The Fire Trail, the border between civilization and the wilderness is represented by a wide firebreak that protects Berkeley from firestorms raging through the East Bay hills. Fire becomes a symbol for both good and evil, lighting the way with candles and lanterns, but also burning houses and communities. As Father Nate, his face scarred by fire, processes through the U.C. campus on his prayer walk, he holds a banner like a cross, and he is followed by students carrying lanterns in the dusk. They return to the chapel on the edge of the Fire Trail where candles flame between a cross placed on an altar.
And so as we step into Lent with our foreheads marked with the cross, we know that we shall rise from the ashes on Easter Day. And as we step into our stories we mark them with the sacred symbols that burn into the memory and the mind, that feed the heart and the soul, sharing with our readers the good news of Easter’s Resurrection, that to die to self is to rise to glory through the ashen cross.
Christine Sunderland is author of five award-winning novels: Pilgrimage, set in Italy, Offerings, set in France, Inheritance, set England, Hana-lani, set in Hawaii, and The Magdalene Mystery, a quest for the true Mary Magdalene and the historicity of the resurrection, set in Rome and Provence. Her sixth novel, The Fire Trail, about the collapse of Western culture, is set in Berkeley, California, and is scheduled to be released May 10 by eLectio Publishing. She serves as Managing Editor for the American Church Union (www.AmericanChurchUnion.com) and Project Manager for the Berkeley Center for Western Civilization (www.WesternCivCenter.org). Visit Christine at www.ChristineSunderland.com (website and blog).