I was born and raised in an evangelical protestant church. The only mentions of “lent” ever made in church were critical (ok, derogatory is probably a more accurate word). I recall lent being connected with people/churches who “still keep Jesus hanging on a cross” while we, the self-proclaimed “Resurrection People” had moved beyond this ancient ritual.
I was always fascinated by ashes, though. People who had them in the grocery store, smudged on their foreheads. My Catholic friends left mid-day to attend mass and came back wondering whether to wash their faces or not. An occasional teacher taught all day with an ashen cross, either oblivious or not projecting care about distracted students like me. Ashes were fascinating, and not open to my familial or religious inquiry.
I am sure I will evolve into other stories of life in college, but for now suffice it to say that I spent my first two years at a college deemed as a “Christian School” where chapel was mandatory, wearing J. Crew was obligatory, and standing out from the fundamentalist mainstream was radical. My Freshman year (before my Great Rebellion) I went to chapel on days I didn’t deliberately schedule myself to work in the cafeteria, bought J. Crew at the Goodwill, and tried to fit into the mainstream. I never really did. But, one late winter Wednesday, I showed up to chapel and a Catholic Monk had been asked to preach. People were aghast. Seriously, a few of my friends even refused to attend. I sat down that day with a smile of delight.
I don’t remember a word he said in the sermon proper. I just remember at the end he said, “In case there are any closet Catholics out there, or people who are simply willing to experience something new, I will host a simple Ash Wednesday service this evening in the basement of East Hall.”
I was a free woman, a Freshman, in college. My parents didn’t know I would be going. I didn’t have to tell anyone. It was taking place in the basement of my dorm. I was going to get my ashes and see what this ritual was all about.
I think of this small point of light from my adolescence on this particular Ash Wednesday of my adulthood, because this moment was transformative in its utter simplicity. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going, I just headed down the dark stairwell to the basement where no one ever went. I peeked into the chapel I didn’t even know existed (it was usually locked). There were four people there. It was quiet, and lit with candles. We prayed.
Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.
I had my ashes, and I felt those words dig into my spirit. And then, I went back up to my dorm room and washed them off and rejoined the throngs of college girls on my floor. But my spirit had been stirred.
It was several years until I observed Ash Wednesday again. During those years, I would face death on a daily basis in my professional life as a social worker and grief therapist. I would face death with people I personally loved. I would confront my own mortality. I would walk out on the faith of my youth into a dark and unknown world where I would struggle and rebel. It is what happens when we dare to face death. It is what happened when Jesus faced death and struggled through 40 days and nights of temptation, literally or figuratively. We cannot experience the joy of resurrection without acknowledging the path to the cross. And that dust of our humanity stays with us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
I acknowledge it. And on this Ash Wednesday, I wear my ashes as a visceral reminder.
This reminds me of a quote I can’t find from Richard Rohr. It basically amounts to something like “Human beings are always a paradox. The more you can see and love the paradoxes within you, the more you can see and love them in the people around you.” And isn’t the ultimate paradox that we’re alive now, but one day, will be dust and ash. It’s hard to look at that one, much less carry it around as an awareness.
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