This Ash Wednesday, I went to the College Chapel for the service. The sermon was about religious symbols; in a secular society, there is no place for outward symbols of faith. If, however, we are trying to live in a 'religiously diverse' society, then there is space to be different, and to celebrate our religious identity.
I had the ashes 'imposed' upon me in chapel, and we were challenged not to wipe it off until sunset. So I didn't. And I'll be honest and say that I did feel like a bit of a muppet walking around London with a big black cross on my forehead. But I also think it was a valuable exercise.
Being conscious of people knowing that I am a Christian (assuming most people recognised it) made me act a little more carefully. I felt less inclined to shout abuse at the bus driver who didn't stop for me, despite having space on the bus. I felt less inclined to aggressively force my way onto a full Tube carriage, and less inclined to take a seat when elderly people were around. Wearing an ashen cross didn't miraculously transform me, but it did make me conscious that I was suddenly representing more than myself as I walked around.
People looked at me very strangely. Elderly people knew what was going on, and I heard one older lady say to her husband "oh, it must be Ash Wednesday already... do you remember..." Being looked at like you're mad by people who have never heard of this practise could probably get you down, eventually. When I was on the Tube, I shared a knowing smile with two Muslim girls sitting opposite me who were wearing head-scarves. On the Bus, later, I shared a similar smile of solidarity with a Jewish man wearing the Kippah. Wearing outward symbols of faith is an everyday occurance for these people; I suspect that being looked at strangely is also part of their daily experience. I think it was very valuable to experience that, to place oneself in their shoes for a while, and to be able to empathise, just a little bit, with what it is like to be 'different' in our culture.