Typically, Reform Unitarianism avoids the veneration of the cross, so it may seem strange for RU’s to join the rest of Christianity in the Ash Wednesday ritual.
Still, the cross does have meaning for Unitarian Reform, in that spiritual commitment must accept the suffering of material existence. From dust we come and to dust we return.
Even so, there are good reasons that the mark of the cross on Ash Wednesday is the exception rather than the rule in Reform Unitarianism.
The Cross & Salvation
One reason Reform Unitarians do not regularly use the cross is that it did not become an important symbol in Christianity until well into the 4th Century, after conflationist corruptions had begun to undermine Christian theology. Later Unitarian Christians did take up the symbol of the cross, like the subjects of Theodoric the Great who built the “Arian” baptistery in Ravenna, Italy. Even so, the cross simply does not represent original Christianity.
More importantly, however, veneration of the cross puts salvific power in the murderous actions of Romans and the foolish decision of the mob of Barabbas. In AUR, we believe that the moment of salvific power during the Passion narrative was not at Golgotha but at Gethsemane, when Jesus of Nazareth committed his soul to the will of his Father and ours.
The metaphorical Cup of Gethsemane (“take this cup from me”) which Jesus ultimately accepts (“nevertheless, Thy will be done”) symbolizes the universal key to salvation. The cross is merely the local instrument of Jesus’s punishment and execution.
Suffering and death were indeed necessary for Jesus — as they are for us — but it is “Thy will be done” that effects salvation, not the Roman whip, thorn, nail, and spearpoint.
The Ashen Cross of Lent
Still, although the chalice is a more spiritually accurate symbol of salvation through commitment of the soul, the cross remains a potent material reminder of what that commitment meant for the founder of our religion.
To use the cliché that has arisen from the Passion narrative, each of us has our own “cross to bear” — but the cross born by Jesus Christ was one of the thousands of actual crosses on which so many were tortured and executed in ancient times.
On this day, as a reminder of the material consequences of our spiritual commitment, Reform Unitarians join with other Christians in taking the ashen mark of the cross to remember that we are dust, and to dust shall we return.