It’s been a couple of weeks since Ash Wednesday. This year was my first time getting ashes administered and it has taken me this long to process the whole experience. The week before, I spent some time reading about what Ash Wednesday represents while I also was trying to decide on what I wanted to give up for Lent.
I didn’t know about the church calendar (cycles of Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost) until my first year in seminary. So the concept of ashes and Lent was a very foreign concept to me. I can remember my first Ash Wednesday in Chicago. I just couldn’t understand why so many people had dirty foreheads. Even after someone told me about Ash Wednesday and Lent, I mostly understood it to be something that the Catholics did. And, at the time, I was leery of “those” Catholics.
Now that I’m a pastor, I wanted to experience Ash Wednesday for myself. I participated primarily as an educational experience, but I experienced so much more.
My husband and I went to a local Disciples of Christ church. I was very methodical in my search for a church administering ashes. This church posted an event on Facebook and I found it. See? Thorough research.
We walked in the church as strangers, but the minister, Owen, welcomed us as if we were part of the church family. He explained what would happen and invited us into the sanctuary.
It’s going to sound cliche, but from the moment I entered, I was at peace. Lights lowered, gentle music playing, slideshow going, and prayer stations in the back of the sanctuary. I’m not sure which one of these did it, but I was in tears almost immediately.
We visited every prayer station and I was struck with the thoughtfulness and creativity of each. They were simple, concrete places of safety in which people were free to express themselves. It made me wonder what kind of safe spaces am I cultivating for my congregation.
When I was ready, I went up to the front where the minister met me. The first thing he did was give me an option. The first was traditional ashes. Ashes are meant to remind us of our humanity, of our mortality. The second was glitter. I was expecting the glitter to be for the LGBTQ+ community or their allies. But it wasn’t. It was for those who may be going through a difficult season in life and don’t need to be reminded of their mortality.
Y’all. This almost broke me. I didn’t grow up in churches that talked about the difficult times in life. That allowed space for them. It only reinforced my belief that part of my calling is to acknowledge from the pulpit that life is difficult. It doesn’t always go as we expect. Bad things happen to good people. My calling is to create a community that holds hope for people who can’t hold that hope for themselves.
I chose the traditional ashes. Not because I’m not experiencing a difficult time, but because I hate glitter. Seriously, it gets everywhere and you just can’t get rid of it.
I was expecting the “from ashes you came, to ashes you will return.” What the minister said was, “On this day we are reminded that from ashes we were created and to ashes one day we shall return, but everyday in the in between we live within the grace of Christ.”
And that last part was key.
Lent is a time of sacrifice as a reminder of the sacrifice Christ made for us. But, too often we stop there and fail to remember is that it isn’t through our sacrifices that we are saved. It’s through God’s grace.
It’s this grace that takes the pressure off. It’s this grace that removes the shame of never being good enough. As Paul puts it, doing the things we shouldn’t do and not doing the things we should do.
As someone who has strong feelings of shame when I don’t think I’m measuring up, it was this reminder of grace that I needed.
Maybe you need it too.
Maybe you need someone to tell you that…
You are made in the image of God.
You are loved in your humanity, flaws and all.
You are enough.