I like to think that when people’s lives cross with mine, they can see that I am a person of faith merely through our interactions. For some that may be the case, but for others the thought may never cross their mind. You see, I don’t wear a cross necklace, although the one I do sport daily does have the same symbolism. I realize that scripture doesn’t repeatedly roll off my tongue, even though I try to speak words meant for good. And my car isn’t branded with a bumper sticker that will tell the tale, but I do have a St. Christopher medal hanging from my rearview mirror for safe travels.
You have to look deep to see my belief system outside of my Sunday mornings, but I hope that most days my actions speak for themselves. That maybe, just maybe, 364 days of the year my faith is felt by others and not visibly seen.
But secretively each spring when one day approaches, I get a little giddy knowing that what I believe I will wear proudly, perched on the top of my forehead. The charcoal streaks made from ashes may look to some like smudged dirt, but to me is a proud stamp of acceptance; one where I make a pledge to turn away from sin and be faithful to that which I spend the rest of the year trying to live out.
On Ash Wednesday, I feel like a part of a pack, one where those who follow my faith system all are interconnected visibly in that which roots us. We all spend the day trying to not scratch our foreheads so that the symbol remains in its purest form. We are taught to not touch, so I always find myself trying to blow the excess ashes off my nose and cheeks, but never do I try to impact the cross on my forehead.
Last night was just like the ones so many years prior, where after a day of trying to fast my family found its way to God’s home to get filled up by getting our mark so as to remind us of the purpose of the Lenten season ahead. The older I get, and more experiences I have, the more the messages at church touch me in different ways.
I sat in the cry room, like usual, with the attempt at keeping my kids from going crazy as Mass was taking place on the verge of their bedtime. I tried to listen to the reading and the homily, which I am sure were filled with messages my soul yearned for. However, like usual, it’s hard to comprehend everything with a two-year-old wanting to play hot wheels with you. I prayed to God to hear even just a nugget of a message through my listening attempts, and like always, He delivered what I asked for but in a completely different way than expected.
I know the purpose of Lent. As a “cradle-Catholic”, this season is not just one I understand, but it is built into the fiber of my being. It’s our purpose and it’s our challenge. But this year, as I kneeled trying to not only hear God but feel Him, I kept thinking about the ashes that I was about to get on my forehead and became enamored with the phrase: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
It’s then that He spoke to me, challenging me to dissect that phrase a bit so that I could apply it to my current life. He reminded me that, as with most times, I may search for the answers but I will always find them deep within myself when I take a breath, pause my busy life, and listen to Him.
We are all but dust. Well, actually a collection of cells, but in all honesty, that which many value most is truly just a vessel for our lifetime here. Our bodies, born sweet and pure, will age and wrinkle. They will malfunction and stop working. Though we deny it most days, the truth is there will be a day that we take our last breath. There will be a day that this life we know is no more. Last night, God reminded me that this life is but a blink. We should not fear mortality, but thanks to the Lenten season, be overjoyed by it, knowing that we were made from God and one day we will be reunited with Him. For we are dust, dust of the earth that He created us from, and when our life here is done, we shall return to live eternity with Him.
I had never been more excited to receive ashes than after God spoke to me last night. He reminded me of what was important, and I was ready to accept His challenge to live the life He has given me with the anticipation He yearns for me to have. So when the priest and deacon made their way off the altar to our congregation to begin the ritual, I quickly corralled my family and made our way to await our turn.
As we waited, my oldest was informing our younger two that it didn’t hurt, as he had already received some earlier that day at school. But my daughter wasn’t having it. In fact, the normally shy and quiet sweetheart was wiggling from my husband’s arms in hope to free herself from the experience. And she was successful at it, for when I looked back she had made her way to my dad and opted to stay in the cry room versus receive her ashes.
I was let down, because to me, this experience was so important. But to a four-year-old, she was terrified. She started to see all of the parishioners with black ashes on their faces and she was scared. There was no way I would force her into this ritual, so I said a silent prayer for her as I received my ashes, listening to every word that was said: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”
As I blew the ash remnants off my nose and our family reunited in the cry room, my daughter peered at our faces perplexed. I told her that I was sad that she didn’t join us, but that there was still time as I saw the lines to the altar continue. She was coloring a picture so I wasn’t sure she was listening to me. She looked up a few times, almost as if she was trying to get comfortable with our new looks, and then, with a big smile, she told me she was ready.
Of course, her timing was a tad off. There was only one line left to receive ashes, so we rushed to try to make it. My sweet girl isn’t the running type, but last night she had pep to her step. As we held hands, I guided her to the side of church to the last remaining line. We made our way up just as the deacon started to turn to head back to the altar. But he saw us, and saw my ashes, which confused him as to why I was returning. I motioned as we ran that she was the one needing them. The congregation paused, as one sweet little four-year-old – the last in the church – received her ashes. And with a quiet whisper, our deacon said, “We saved the best for last.”
It took everything for me to hold back the tears. I picked her up, hugging her tighter than normal and felt God ever-so-present between us. It was almost as if He was binding us together in that hug, promising to never let either of us go. He didn’t care if we were first or last. In fact, last night He proved that it doesn’t matter when you decide to join Him, He will be there, waiting just for you.
My daughter was beaming as was I. I didn’t pressure her into accepting Jesus and God into her life; she chose it. And in choosing it, He reinforced the message He was trying to tell me all night. Our lives are full of choices, and while we make so many on a daily basis, the most important one is choosing to have our eyes set on Him. For through the ashes, He is there. Through the pain, He is there. Through happy tears and sad ones; through hugs of joy and ones of sorrow; through uncertainty and fear; through it all, He is there. Don’t worry if it takes you a lifetime to truly understand this either, for just like my deacon whispered last night, God does too… sometimes He saves the best for last!