I stood on the street corner this time last year, at the intersection of 5th and Main—head bowed, backpack on, tears streaming down my face.
Minutes earlier I was walking from my car to my favorite coffee shop with plans for a productive Wednesday morning, when I noticed two priests up ahead of me (a site which would have been normal in my Chicago days, but was a first for me in little Franklin, Tennessee). The priests were from the Episcopal church about a block away. One was holding a small bowl of ashes from the burnt palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday service, and the other held a small stack of papers in his hands. I greeted them and they greeted me, and they explained why they were there:
“We know not everyone can make it to an early morning Ash Wednesday service, so we’re meeting them here, in the middle of their lives, because we believe that’s exactly where Jesus meets us.”
They asked me if they could pray for me. Yes, please do.
One priest gave me one of his papers and I followed along with an Ash Wednesday prayer on the page as he prayed it over me:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wickedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
We exchanged a few quiet words, then with his thumb he solemnly smudged an ashen cross on my forehead, saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I was stopped in my tracks. Tears flowed while traffic carried on in the background, and I stood in stillness with my God and wept for the sins that separated me from Christ.
At the age of 31, it was the first time I’d observed Ash Wednesday in this traditionally Roman Catholic way. What had once seemed ritualistic to this protestant girl became a vehicle the Holy Spirit used to bring me to repent and believe anew.
This is Lent. It’s a time to stop—wherever we’re going and whatever we’re coming from. Whether we’ve been anticipating this season since Christmas, or it’s stopping us cold on our way to where we think we need to be—here we are.
Lent is a pause button. It is a quiet unlike any other time of year. Lent is a season to close our eyes as the busy world buzzes around us, to consider those things we’d much rather forget: our sin and our humanity. We came from dust, and to dust we will return.
Have you ever heard the phrase “suppressing alleluia”? I hadn’t until just this year. (See? We get to learn new things, even as adults!) It was a practice introduced somewhere around the 7th or 8th century where congregants would sing the liturgical “Alleluia” loudly on the day before Ash Wednesday, then put the joyful word aside until Easter. The suppression of “Alleluia” was thought to increase the anticipation of Easter Sunday and the excitement of proclaiming Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It’s another one of those rituals, like ashen crosses on our foreheads, that feels like a tangible act of an inward posture.
Let’s be honest: rituals are attractive. We are people who love visuals and search for tangible acts that allow us to experience God. But what these rituals are not is measurable. Bearing ashes or avoiding words will not purge us of our sins. These acts alone will not draw us nearer to God. But oftentimes Church traditions—when we understand their origin and the intent behind them—can serve as tools to remind us of the very real reality of the Gospel in our lives.
Whether you carry the ashen cross on your forehead or not, know that Ash Wednesday is for remembering our sin and humanity—for reflecting on our fallen state and our gaping need for a Savior. Let today stop you in your tracks to “lament and acknowledge your wickedness”, knowing that the King of Alleluias has already done all that needs to be done to grant you “perfect remission and forgiveness.”