Today is Ash Wednesday. The beginning of the Lenten season. I was feeling brave last year, and celebrated Ash Wednesday for the first time in my life. J, Amy and I went to the Basilica for the service, and at the end the priest anointed our foreheads with the ashes while saying “Remember you come from dust and to dust you will return.” It was a really meaningful event for me as I began to consider my life as a phase of waiting for renewal.
This year, I realize, the ritual was not quite the same experience for me like I naively hoped it would be. Sitting in the worship, going forward to receive the ashes on my forehead, all felt empty of God this year. Not that God wasn’t present, but God was silent for me today at the service. Only in reflecting back now do I realize that maybe the point for me today wasn’t the service itself, but what God had to teach me with the rest of the day as I walked around with ashes on my face.
Last year I felt weird about walking about with ashes on my forehead and wiped them off quickly after leaving the service (even though that’s not the way the ritual is supposed to work). This year was different; this year I was intentional about leaving them – only I hadn’t counted on the weirdness of my students letting me know again and again that I had a black spot on my forehead. And I awkwardly respond and say, “I know. (Smile) It’s Ash Wednesday. (Smile) But thanks for telling me.” I think I made it half the day before I coudn’t take it anymore, and wiped off the ashes before I went to run my errands.
But maybe the ashes ritual did something in me anyway. One of the aims of Lent is to die to self in order to live with Christ. I am so motivated by people liking me, and the anxiety of someone not liking or not accepting me weighs upon me. I think this is particularly true now in this season of life where I’m operating in many new spheres and am trying to find my rhythm and direction. As my students kept staring and wrestling with social norms (to tell her she’s got a dark spot on her forehead or not?), I felt overly awkward, judged and desired to shrink back into myself. Anxiety heightened.
And I realize now – here is an area where I need to die to myself. I need to let go of that crippling need to be accepted at all cost, and I need to focus instead upon the way that I am loved by the Spirit, the Father and Jesus. If I was less consumed with self, what greater capacities might I actually have to love others. And maybe that right there is the root of my recent bout of crabbiness. As I fill up with fear and anxiety, I have less space for grace and acceptance of others. I want to be a person full of welcome for others, for self, for God. And in order to make space for me to extend that welcome, I have to let go of the anxiety I’m gripping.