When I taught high school, a Jewish girl enrolled. She had been struggling to find her place in a public school and heard about our all-girls Catholic school and decided to give it a try. She became very popular and was the star in our musicals leading to a professional career in dance. The first Ash Wednesday she had been with us, she was told by her uninformed girlfriends that she could not receive ashes in chapel that day! So, she posted herself outside the doors as the girls emerged giddy with their foreheads blackened and flecks of ashes tumbling down their cheeks. Her best pal said, “I can’t touch the ashes cuz they’re blest, so I can’t rub some of mine on your forehead. But I have an idea!” They rubbed their foreheads together so some of Mary’s ashes would be placed on Kay’s forehead! I came across the exchange and the two scooted off!
I recalled that creative way of sharing ashes as we discussed methods now being used during this pandemic. These girls were happy. Kay got her ashes and Mary never had to touch them in the process! (I told them later that Kay could have received the ashes as the other girls did and that touching blessed items was allowed. This was before liturgical changes of Vatican II were fully integrated.)
Parishes were debating recently whether to use Q-tips or simply sprinkle the ashes over the heads of each person. We had drive-through sprinkling of ashes in parishes near me. I’m imaging some children gleeful at the thought: just like fairy dust without the bling! One pastor instructed his people during Sunday’s Mass that sprinkling ashes always was the practice in the Early Church and in much of Europe is still the preferred method.
However we do it, the meaning is real. We will spend the next forty days reflecting on our purpose in life. It is a purpose which should rely on our faith, no matter what our faith happens to be. And the ashes remind us of this. Christians get fairly intimate with their faith at this time and they chisel away at their crusted souls to rid themselves of the selfishness that has taken over this past year. We do this by fasting, praying, and admitting our sins. Hopefully, we respond to the call to confess selfishness and repent of it. The ashes remind of us of that every sin is burned away as we seek the comfort of forgiveness. If you have been away from your spiritual home, Lent is a helpful time to come back. The door is always open, simply walk in. The faith community needs you and you need the faith community. Do not be afraid because you are timid or so uncertain. If you study the Gospels, or simply read them on your own, you will see that Jesus focused on people like you: the lost sheep, the prodigal son, the Samaritan woman, and so on. Story after story Jesus was there. You will find Him there waiting for you, preaching about you, simply happy you might even be thinking about Him. Get rid of the selfishness that holds you back. Put aside the grudges you have about religion, or your parish, or your experiences in a religious school. Rise above this – from the ashes – and embrace a new journey these next forty days. GK Chesterton once said, “A religion is not the church one goes to but the cosmos one lives in.” We should consider this seriously from a conservative Catholic man who embraced the Cosmic Christ.
I am loathe to recommend books because there are so many fine reflective books on Lent. Therefore, I want to say that you should please pick up or order a book that focuses on Lent and spiritual practices. Check these online.
For now, I will suggest Jesus by Jim Martin, SJ who will take you through a journey of the Holy Land and share his experiences of all the important points of a Lenten journey. He is very readable and enjoyable. Check your local book stores or your parish libraries or the countless websites of publishers for this book and others related to Lenten spirituality. If you have questions about books, I am happy to help you as I am a bibliophile of sorts.
Maybe you could join a scripture book club. Look around for these in our neighborhood. Whatever you do, make the New Testament your friend and settle into forty days of walking with Jesus toward the resurrection.
I thank my Anonymous Angels for your many comments on the last several posts. I am so grateful for your readership. I absolutely love connecting with you and sharing what little I can about our mutual interest in spirituality and charity. I pray for each of you, I really do, every day.