Many years ago on Ash Wednesday, I took my children to Sam’s Club to do some shopping. We hadn’t been to Mass and I wasn’t sure we were going to go. Normally we went to the evening Mass for ashes, but this year I knew we couldn’t go then. There was an early Mass offered, but I had many things to do that day. To be quite honest, I didn’t want to do them with a huge smudge of ash on my forehead. People already stared at us enough when I was out and about with so many children. I knew that if I, plus seven little kids, had ashes on our foreheads people would surely stare. I didn’t know if I could handle that kind of attention.
While we were shopping, I saw a man sitting in the food court area. He was elderly, his skin very weathered and wrinkled, his eyes tired and alone. I was drawn to him. As I passed him, I greeted him with a friendly hello and each of my children smiled from ear to ear and greeted him as well. His eyes lit up and he eagerly responded in kind. We spoke briefly and I asked him where he went to church. He told me and then while gingerly touching his forehead said it was Ash Wednesday, which was why he had ashes there. I smiled at him and told him that I too was Catholic, knowing very well the day and what those were. He raised his eyebrows and said in a concerned voice, “Well, where are your ashes?” Blushing, I told him that we had not been to Mass yet. He smiled and encouraged me to go. Shortly thereafter, we parted ways.
The impressed that the old man left with me stayed with me all day. He had reminded me with his simple gesture and sweet words just how important those ashes are. He was proud of them; proud of his faith. Those ashes showed how firm he was in his beliefs. I felt ashamed of myself. No, it wasn’t a holy day of obligation, but Ash Wednesday, as the beginning of Lent, is an incredibly important day within our faith.
And I missed it.
It would continue to bother me and I would contemplate on it many hours during that Lenten season. Why? Why was I worried about what people would say or the looks they would give us if we were walking around with ashes on our heads? Why did it matter so much what others thought of me or my family? The questions pained me throughout Lent. On Good Friday, sitting in the darkened church before the covered crucifix, I understood why this angst had lingered so persistently in the back of my mind (and often at the forefront of my thoughts) during Lent.
An Inner Change
As I sat quietly, I realized that my fear of people staring at me, laughing at me, and thinking I was strange was probably not so much different than what Christ’s disciples went through. They were marked with the Holy Spirit and the change in them was clear. They were different and they did things differently than those around them. It perplexed and angered people, and it scared them. At times, the disciples were scared, too. Yet, they bravely went out in the world spreading Christ’s word, performing miracles, and living the life that He had called them to live. They did this knowing that their lives could be at risk. Here I sat afraid of a little smudge of ashes on my forehead, and there the disciples had risked their lives to show the great change that had taken place in their lives and in their hearts! I finally knew what God was asking of me.
The following year when Ash Wednesday arrived, I eagerly loaded up the kids and we went to noon Mass. We received our ashes with great joy. As I stood in Mass holding my little one, he gently pressed his tiny fingers to my cross. He smiled a huge smile and I took my own finger and lightly touched his forehead and whispered to him that he had one too. He squealed with delight. The rest of the kids looked over at me and each had smiles on their faces as well. It was a wonderful feeling.
After Mass, we needed to stop at the store. After unloading all the kids, we walked in and began shopping. People stared. People pointed. A few people did asked me what was on our heads. Filled with Christ’s joy, I explained to them the significance of the ashes that graced each of our foreheads. I told them the ashes were an outward sign of the internal change that was happening inside of my heart. I told them that during Lent I was beginning to allow God to take away my inadequacies and my failings and fill my heart with a longing to do His work and live the life that He wants me to live. I explained that this process doesn’t end when Lent ends – it only continues. Each year when Lent rolls around again I will allow myself to be marked in this way to show that I am still eager for God to continue this work within me.
Ash Wednesday used to be a time where I worried about what others might say about me and about the life I have chosen to live with Christ. I look back on those days and I wonder why I couldn’t see the importance of living my faith boldly and without apologies. I suppose God knew I wasn’t ready at that time. I often think of the old man who so gently touched the ashes on his forehead. His loving reply to me and his encouragement helped me contemplate and pray about how God truly was calling me to live.
I bear my ashes with great humility now. I know that God is still working in my heart, cleansing me of my sins, clearing away the hurdles in my path, and helping me overcome my constant failings. I hope by seeing the outward sign upon my forehead others will be encouraged to begin to allow God to change them internally as well.