A year ago, I was God-struck by an Ash Wednesday service that took me back to another season, to the faith tradition that formed me. With Ash Wedneday and this new season of Lent approaching, I thought I’d share the essay again. This year, I’ll have a role in our church’s service, an assignment that adds another layer of blessing upon this Holy season. And, I’m still God-struck.
I stood in line for the symbolic smudge of ashes on the first day of Lent, unprepared for what that touch to my forehead would to do my heart.
In the glow of candlelight, tears spilled unbidden. And there she was again, standing at the altar. Skinny, smiling shyly as she posed in her white communion dress, mousy brown hair peaking from beneath a froth of netting, white anklets scrunched above black patent leather shoes. Ardent in her practice of a faith that formed her, the girl’s eyes glowed with the joy of taking her first communion. Her first confession.
Her first receiving of the ashes.
Did she know that five decades later, she’d stand at another altar and her heart would bust wide open, full with the joy of taking back the precious meaning of the ashes?
I turned away from Catholicism as a high school senior, lured by the popular youth group and upbeat music offered by my friends’ non-denominational church. I wanted guitars and games, not incense, chiming bells and Latin liturgy. A copy of The Living Bible went with me to college. My Catholic scriptures were left behind on a bedroom shelf.
An outdoor wedding ceremony officiated by the pastor of that non-denominational church set me on a path toward spiritual awakening and growth. Women in the church mentored and encouraged my still-ardent love for Jesus, and I learned to share Him with others. In years to come, pastors from various denominations and other churches contributed to a deepening faith that sustained me through trials — divorce, loss, cancer.
The security of a faith built on decades spent living out God’s Word among His people allowed me to listen when a gentle ripple of longing began to surface. In the beginning, I couldn’t put a word to the yearnings that bubbled in a quiet corner of my soul. I love my church. I’m in deep agreement with the doctrine and theology of our evangelical protestant beliefs and practices. But, like a lamp lit by a low-wattage bulb, my rock-solid faith lacked some of the glow that burned across the years from the altar of that little Catholic chapel of my childhood.
Then, last summer I met two faithful women doing a work of revival at a Catholic retreat center, and the yearnings slipped into place.
Beauty, symbolism, tradition, corporate prayer, holy seasons. I had shed them like an ill-fitting coat in my youth. Now, I felt the loss of their weight and warmth.
I soaked up the joy of those women doing a work for Jesus, offering to add a work of my own to their revival project. As we talked and planned, I recognized and understood what shined from their eyes when they spoke to me of tradition. Of miracles, healings, sacraments. Of a church history that, in many ways, all Christian faiths share.
It was familiar because it was part of me.
My stepmom passed away shortly after these women completed their project. It was inevitable that my grieving was bound up by their unwavering commitment to The Church. And by my stepmother’s. Her collection of Catholic icons, prayer books, rosaries, holy medals and other symbols of faith passed through my hands. They gave weight once again to what I’d known and lived, to the faith that formed me.
You can turn from one good thing and replace it with another. But can you wipe away the imprint that one thing left on your soul? Or can you acknowledge the stirrings and make space for them to be welcomed in the now?
Our evangelical Christian church chose to observe Ash Wednesday for the first time in many years. Dipping back into the dust of a tradition that lay at the foundation of my faith brought me face-to-face with the ardent little Catholic girl who was the Bride of Jesus.
Her eyes still glow.
If you are receiving the ashes on Wednesday, perhaps you’re wondering what they mean. The cross of ashes is a visual symbol of the laying down of one’s burdens and picking up Christ’s cross. It’s a sign of our mortality and repentence. Because Lent is the beginning of the new year on the calendar of the church, this reminder and the meaning behind it — to lay down our burdens and to repent — is a fitting posture for all of us. Even if you do not receive the ashes, pick up the cross of Christ and carry it into the new year.
“Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” Genesis 3:19b