I told a friend yesterday morning that I was “really excited about Lent,” and the words sounded strange coming out of my mouth. It was a bit like saying I couldn’t wait for my own funeral. Tonight I will go to sleep with a cross of ashes on my forehead, a gritty reminder of my own imminent death.
When I was a Protestant child, I remember wiping the dirt off a friend’s head at school, only to be informed that I shouldn’t have done that. Two years ago, as I was nearing my own reception into the Church, I had ashes placed on my forehead for the first time. Afterwards, in the coffee shop, I wore my winter hat down over my brow so that no one would see. Last year, I wore my ashes a bit more openly leaving church.
Today I went back for seconds.
I attended morning mass with Katie and watched with joy as an 11-year-old boy who says he wants to be a priest served at the altar. Then tonight came the clincher, when I served as a lector at evening mass, and Father Barnes asked Michael and me to help him distribute the ashes. So after the homily I stood at the head of the Blessed Mother’s aisle with a small bowl of burned palm leaves and ground ashen crosses into people’s foreheads with my thumb. Try it sometime.
Try repeating “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” to a procession of friends, acquaintances, and total strangers while you press a vivid reminder into their heads that they are little more than ashes themselves. Try it with an 80-year-old woman bent over a walker for whom this could be the last Ash Wednesday. Try it with an 8-year-old boy who looks up at you wonderingly, not sure whether to wear a long face or giggle, a child who will probably outlive you, but by how much, and does it matter? “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Try it with a teenage girl, whose carefully shaped bangs form a nearly impassable barrier. Try it with a friend who greets you with a warm smile, which you return warmly, while saying, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
There is an awesome formality to serving communion, which I have also had the opportunity to do, and nothing personal passes between the server and the communicant usually. Distributing ashes on the first day of Lent is a different, utterly intimate gesture. Some, receiving the ashes, say “Amen,” as with communion. Some say “Thank you.” Some only smile and turn away.
All of us will turn away soon enough. I will go to sleep tonight with a cross of ashes on my forehead. And the great season of Lent has begun.