Growing up Hispanic Protestant, all things that even smelled Catholic were to be kept far, far away. We missed out on precious and valuable traditions, for sure. For this reason I’m relatively new to Lent. It wasn’t until part way through seminary that I was introduced to this holy season.
I still remember listening to an Ash Wednesday sermon in chapel which is still one of the most personally impactful sermons I’ve heard to date. The sermon was given by a professor who would later become a friend, and she eloquently yet in real and raw fashion talked about the significance and symbolism of ashes – the pain, struggle, hope, and grace. I was also able to participate in the small church I attended in Orlando during seminary. It was there that I first was part of the carrying out of an Ash Wednesday service. I’m so thankful for that time that was gifted to me.
On another Ash Wednesday finishing up seminary I was volunteering with Orlando Health’s Spiritual Care department, and that day I met an elderly woman who was living in an assisted living facility with the anticipation of soon having to be in the nursing home wing. I remember this day specifically because she had a big black/gray smudge on her forehead. At first I thought she had something wrong with her skin (okay – I was finishing seminary and it was still morning – give me a break), but no, the chaplain had been going around with ashes. Most everyone in this place had a cross (or smudge) on their foreheads. I remember this as it seems like such a holy and somewhat ironic encounter that this Ash Wednesday experience would occur in a place where there is a frequent reminder of our humanness and our returning to dust.
Post-seminary while living in North West Florida in a small rural town with inner city demographics, I remember Wednesday was one of our after school days. I was in the small Presbyterian Church where we held our after school program, this particular Ash Wednesday. The days there were difficult, often heart-wrenching, but sometimes rewarded with beautiful smiles and hearty hugs. On that particular day one of our volunteers had been to a morning service in Quincy, the neighboring town, and carried a black smudge (cross) on her forehead, which the kids found quite interesting.
The next year has been my favorite so far, as I got to be fully involved in the inspiring and keen Ash Wednesday service at KUMC, Tallahassee. Marking folks – children and adults – who came and knelt to receive the cross on their foreheads while I said the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” has been one of the holier experiences of my life.
Now I’m officially a Rev. and in my first appointment looking forward to this year’s Ash Wednesday experience.
I say all this because for me Lent means several things – a time of inner-reflection, of checking my ego, of embracing the messy and rawness of mortality, a time of preparing for what it looks like and means to follow Jesus to the cross.
As I look back on all these memories, I can say for certain that I’m not the same now as I was then. I have changed; I hope to be able to continue to say that throughout all my Lents. One question I ask myself at the start of Lent is, ‘where are you this Lent?’ I’m not speaking geographically, but in my growing up in Christ — in my discipleship journey. I invite you to think of your ashy memories if you have any, and to let the ashes bring you forward as well to memories to come. At the same time I hold in my heart friends who find themselves during this Lent recently finding out about a father’s cancer diagnosis, or holding on to a spouse’s ashes after several months of his death, or remembering the anniversary of the death of a young son — may the hope that are in the ashes sustain them in this time and the times to come.
Join me in prayer (from the UMC Book of Worship):
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the early Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church that before the Easter celebration there should be a forty-day season of spiritual preparation. During this season converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when persons who had committed serious sins and had separated themselves from the community of faith were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to participation in the life of the Church. In this way the whole congregation was reminded of the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the need we all have to renew our faith. We invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to observe a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word. Today we gather to make a right beginning of repentance, to acknowledge our mortal nature, and to bow together before our Creator and Redeemer.