Yesterday, what many Christians recognize as Ash Wednesday and the first day of the Season of Lent, I awoke with some trepidation. I had committed to doing something I hadn’t ever done and wasn’t too keen about—standing in a public setting and offering the imposition of ashes to anyone who cared to receive them.
For those unfamiliar with the practice, we repeat this ancient practice as a sign of both humility and the limited nature of our existence. It isn’t supposed to be a source of pride, but precisely the opposite. It has always been for me a paradox: On the very day we cite Jesus’s words, “When you fast, do not disfigure your face so as to be noticed by others” (not an exact quote, btw), we mark our heads with the cross in a way that cannot help but be noticed by others.
I went to our resale shop, a very busy place four days a week, and planned to stay there for three hours. It was difficult for me, uncomfortable in ways I had anticipated and in ways I hadn’t. I was thankful for the cold and biting wind, because it meant I had no choice but to stand inside—and somewhat ashamed that the idea of standing outside made me more anxious. For the first hour and a half, I had no takers, just a few strange looks from people surprised to see a man in a robe lurking near the door.
Then a Latina woman came in and asked the volunteer behind the counter, “Where do I go for this?” pointing towards the sign I had placed outside in the sidewalk. I was so glad to have someone—anyone—receive my offer. And, as I placed my thumb upon her forehead, leaving behind the ashes in the form of a cross and saying the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I was deeply moved by the solemnity with which she received them.
As she turned away, our volunteer said, “Tell your friends!” to which she replied, “I will!” And she did. In fact, she stayed in the store for at least the next 45 minutes, doing the work I should have been doing myself—approaching people, mostly Spanish speakers, women and men, young and old, and leading them by the hand to the place where I stood. They all, gratefully, received the ashes, and brought the attention of others, as well.
By the time I had finished my allotted time, I had marked the foreheads of something close to 25 people. I had expected to feel very successful had I done half as well. I marked the heads of neighbors I knew and didn’t know, the heads of teachers from our preschool, and at least two who said they had “never done this before.” The experience brought me close to tears at several moments. Each person seemed to receive exactly what they needed that day.
I think that Ash Wednesday is one of the most important days of the year in the Christian calendar. To me it is on par with Christmas and Easter, especially as I look around me and see such prideful arrogance throughout the Christian church, not to mention the world at large. It seems to be one of the few things we Christians do that people unfamiliar with our traditions can truly grasp and resonate with, which is probably at least partly because similar practices existed for millennia before Christianity existed.
We all need to be confronted with the limited nature of our existence and to allow others—even, or especially, strangers—to serve us. I believe this, above all other things, is the key to our continued existence as a species.
Wishing all of you the grace of humility, and peace. Lots of peace.