When I pick my sons Clay and Alex up from elementary school, I often give them a rundown of the afternoon ahead. I tell them whether they have karate or soccer practice or if their older brother has a basketball game. This day happened to be Ash Wednesday, the start of the Lenten season in preparation for Easter. I explained that we’d go to Church for a small service, and then Pastor Chris would put ashes on our heads in the shape of a cross. They’d participated in Ash Wednesday services before, but I wasn’t sure they remembered.
That’s when nine-year-old Clay asked a question that made me hit the brakes. “Who are we putting on us?” he said. “What?” I said, whipping my head around to stare at him. His concern startled me. “No, no, we aren’t putting anyone’s ashes on our foreheads!” I exclaimed. I told him that the ashes were from the palms we’d used last year during Palm Sunday when we waved them in Church to simulate the welcome Jesus received on his way into Jerusalem before Holy Week. The Church had burned the palms last year and kept the ashes.
I racked my brain about why he would think we were going to use someone’s ashes. Our nineteen-year-old cat had died recently, and we’d talked about how we would get his ashes from the vet. I figured that was why he was nervous that we would end up with a being’s ashes on our heads. Honestly, there are a lot of things about Ash Wednesday, Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter that can be mystifying, even for adults.
I grew up in Church, but ours did not commemorate Ash Wednesday or Lent. So, when I was in law school, I was unfamiliar with the practice. Every year, for three years, when my friend Charissa would come to school with ashes on her forehead under her bangs, I would point and say, “You have some dirt on your forehead.” Not to be rude, in fact, I thought I was being helpful. But I had forgotten that it was Ash Wednesday because it was not a part of my practice.
I know there are probably deep theological meanings behind Ash Wednesday that I still do not comprehend even though I’ve experienced it for almost twenty years now. But what I like is the symbolism of God’s claim upon on our lives and our dedication to God in return. The cross made of ashes rubs off quickly and easily, but perhaps one of our goals for Lent should be to more fully inhabit what the dust on our foreheads demonstrates. What if we try to make our lives a visible reflection of God’s love? Instead of seeing a cross on our foreheads, people can look at the way we live and see God’s light and love. Not an easy commitment by any means, but one to consider. Not in an effort to be perfect, but to show others that God loves imperfect people anyway.
God loves us and wants to remind us of his love over and over and wants us to share that love in turn. May we make every attempt to fulfill this hope: that others can point to us and identify us as representatives of God’s love, even without the ashes on our heads.