The first time I found myself at an altar for an Ash Wednesday service having ashes and oil smudged onto forehead, a big part of my heart wondered how I had gotten there.
Growing up as a devoted Southern Baptist girl we never celebrated Ash Wednesday. Thanks to my Methodist-raised mother I was familiar with the practice of Lent. My brothers and I watched every year as she gave up something in the forty days leading to Easter. Some years I participated with her but honestly it was more out of practicing discipline or wanting to copy my mom than focusing on God. On and off over the ensuing years through college, early married life and having three babies I would revisit the practice of giving up something for Lent. Usually with a half-hearted spirit that was hoping to get something more for myself, like breaking my chocolate addiction, than believing God might actually show up. When we found ourselves in Auburn attending Cornerstone who offered an Ash Wednesday service I thought it might be interesting to go. Several friends were going, I could use it to kick off Lent, and besides, and this Baptist girl hadn’t been to church on Wednesday night in a while.
Here’s the thing about an Ash Wednesday service. It is not for the faint of heart. It is a place that is gritty and reverent at the same time. A place where you are reminded of your death and humanity. The service calls us to reflect on the breath of our life that is fleeting and Easter is only a glimmer of hope in the distance. It is probably the least glamorous church service of the year. But in these moments of having ashes and oil mixed together and put on my forehead, I found God breaking through to create holy ground in a way I had never known.
So I keep going every year to see my humanity reflected back at me. To let my children wonder why we do this and to ask hard questions about what life is really about. These return trips have begun to shape my days of Lent and Easter in a profound way. Micha Boyett in her book Found puts it beautifully when she says, “Lent is about reminding ourselves that we need God more than anything else.” Lent is not about me giving up something for God to earn his favor or approval. Lent is about me creating space to see my need for God above all else. Seeing this need begins with a somber Ash Wednesday service that reminds me just how human I am.
I don’t know yet what Lent will look like for me this year-if I will give something up or add a new practice to see God in my life. I do know that it will begin with standing on holy ground on Ash Wednesday, with ashes and oil lovingly marked on my forehead in the shape of a cross and being reminded that each breath I take is God given and this journey that I am on is His.