This past Christmas, Santa gave me a pair of AirPods, the unmistakable wireless headphones from Apple. I was very excited to walk around in my new Silicon-Valley chic, but it turned out that I was not alone. Upon returning to school, it seemed that almost every other pair of anxious college student ears was adorned with a fresh set of AirPods. It felt like an episode of Black Mirror, futuristic but a bit creepy. I immediately became disillusioned with the “cool factor” that I thought the headphones might grant me, and then another thought started to seep in. Almost overnight, AirPods had become an overwhelming symbol of status, a clear and visible sign of luxury. The “have’s” could walk down the street and nod to each other in recognition of yet another member of the “inner ring,” while the “have-not’s” saw another reason to feel ostracized.

This week, many Christians will don one of our most recognizable outward symbols of faith: the forehead ashes of Ash Wednesday. I have always felt a little bit conflicted wearing the ashes myself. What should I think about this seemingly innocuous mark, meant to signal our entrance into the Lenten season of repentance, when Jesus clearly repudiates any sort of boasting in your faith? In my own church, the gospel reading for the day is always the same caution:

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven … And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

This seems like a trap—the priest is going to put an ash cross on my forehead and then warn me about bringing attention to my faith? Though superficially confusing, I don’t feel like Jesus is telling me to skip the ashes. Rather, he is warning me to be mindful of my intentions. The first word in this verse is the important one here: “Beware.” Ash Wednesday does not call for the pride and the “Look, I did a good thing!” attitude of the classic “I Voted” stickers. But I still worry that this symbol will appear as a status declaration to non-believers: “I am a good person because I went to church on a Wednesday.” In a time when evangelizing increasingly feels like fighting against classic stereotypes about religion and inclusion, the ashes seem to hold us back. How can we say convincingly that the grace of God is for all people while walking around looking like Dr. Seuss’s star-bellied sneetches?

But in a Catch-22 sort of way, the ashes also remind me that I won’t be able to avoid these things. I won’t be able to overcome the sinful instincts that live within me everyday. I can only pray for my self-righteousness to be quelled. I can only pray that placing ashes on my forehead serves to bring attention to God, not to me. I can only pray that if someone comments on the ashes or is looking at me funny, that I can use that opportunity to talk to them about my faith and about Ash Wednesday. I can tell them that the ashes are there to remind me that I am dust, and to dust I shall return.

The ashes are there to remind me that, though I pray for all of these things, I will continue to sin. And chances are, that person will continue to look at me funny. But maybe not, because there is something arresting about having someone confess their brokenness to you, telling you that it’s okay that you will never be enough for yourself. In a world that has such a tough time grappling with the idea of death, with giving up control over our lives, it is countercultural to even try to accept our own mortality. Ash Wednesday reminds us that this acceptance is what can set us free, from the need to control, from the expectations of us, both from ourselves and from others—free from our weakness made known to us through the Law.

I am reminded of the tearjerking country hit from Tim McGraw, “Live Like You Were Dying,” which gave me one of those moments when I listen to something and think, “Wait a second … isn’t that the gospel?” The gist of the lyrics is that a near-death experience shocks someone and reorients their priorities. The man in the song seems to be freed when he accepts his mortality. Sound familiar? The refrain of the song goes: “Someday I hope you get the chance / To live like you were dying.” The ashes serve to remind us that we do have that chance. I am dying. You are dying. But lucky for us, Jesus died too, and because of that we are free. He came down from heaven to meet us in our brokenness, and he overcame death so that he could be alive in us. So go skydiving, go Rocky Mountain climbing, but praise God that we can live like we are dying.