Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent on the Western Christian calendar. Lent occurs 40 days (not including Sundays) before Easter. The name “Ash Wednesday” comes from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful as a sign of repentance. The ashes are created by burning the palm crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and then mixed with oil to create a paste. When the ashes are placed on your forehead, the priest recites “you are dust and from dust you shall return.”
Growing up, Ash Wednesday was the day when the nuns would gather us in groups and walk us over to the church. Inevitably, someone would act up and get pulled aside for a mild scolding. I remember the expansive feeling of the church as we walked in; how quiet and somber it felt. Then we’d wait in line to have ashes rubbed on our foreheads in the sign of the cross, some of which usually fell into your eyes. I remember the sensation of the priest’s finger or thumb gently pushing against my forehead and how it felt itchy. I always wanted to look them straight in the eye while they smudged me with ashes.
After the smudging, you returned to the church pew to say prayers and ask forgiveness. I usually sat there trying to think of something to say in my head. Scrunching my eyes it seems I’d usually fall back on a rote prayer like the Hail Mary or something and add “Forgive me God for I have sinned.”
After services we’d return to class and check-out each others foreheads to see who had the biggest cross-like blob. I remember how I couldn’t wait to get home and wash my face that night to remove the ashes. I also remember having this slight fear at what would happen to me if I washed them off too early.
I think Ash Wednesday reinforced my early fear of death. What else could I think of after being told I came from dust and would return to that form? Here I thought I came from my mom’s belly and now you’re telling me I’m just a speck of dust? (And this was not to be confused with the sparkle in my father’s eye from where I also supposedly came from.)
As a young child I took offense. I certainly thought I was more significant than a speck of dust. (But I guess that was supposed to be the point. I was no more significant that a speck of dust.)
On Ash Wednesday, we were expected to abstain from meat and to abstain from meat on every Friday up to Easter for the whole of Lent. I was not a fan of tuna so we usually had some other type of fish for dinner. PB & J’s were pretty popular for school lunch too. I remember some people fasted on Ash Wednesday. That was not expected of me nor was I ever asked to do so. It was more common for us kids to think of something to give up during Lent. Chocolate, gum, and other sweets were always popular choices. Sometimes you’d promise not to pick on a sibling or to not mouth back at your parents or to eat all your vegetables. Of course if you failed at any of this, the wrath of God would come down, swoop you up, and turn you back into that pile of dust.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that extreme but as a young kid fear is a pretty powerful deterrent. In reality, giving up something for Lent was like making a New Year’s resolution. You were lucky if you kept it. 40 plus days is an eternity as a child. However, the draw of the promised Easter basket at the end of this time period (filled with all those sweets you gave up) could be a pretty good incentive.
As I grew older, participating in Ash Wednesday services became a rote activity. In high school it was a nice break from class. In some ways it became less meaningful to me. It became an obligation; an expectation.
I don’t remember taking part in Ash Wednesday services once I entered college. After college I remember the guilt I felt for not participating in services. (Somewhere Yoda was saying “The Catholic guilt is strong in this one.”) It took several years to get that out of my system.
Today I can look back on Ash Wednesday fondly, without guilt and without fear of some giant hand of repercussion. I recall some beauty in the moment as we were called to reflect and to pause from our busy schedules. Lent can be a time of cleansing and an awakening to the renewal of spring.
Today, I think I’ll have a fish sandwich for lunch, something vegetarian for dinner, and something sweet thrown in for good measure.