What Ash Wednesday Means to Me

A personal reflection on the beginning of 40 days of Lent

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What Ash Wednesday Means to Me

Has this ever happened to you? You’re in the office, you notice a smudge on your colleague’s forehead–it looks to be in the shape of a cross–and you’re about to offer them a handkerchief. Then you remember. It must be Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, those 40 days leading up to Easter (not counting Sundays), a reference to the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning His ministry. A chance for us to take our own wilderness journeys. Here’s what Ash Wednesday means to me.

We are human. The words from Genesis are read at most Ash Wednesday services, what God told Adam and Eve when they were kicked out of Eden: “…you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a reminder of our own mortality, something we all have in common. I like to hold that thought in prayer. It’s reassuring, a chance to step back from my ego-centric wishes and let God enter in.

We are God’s children. A small group from our church stands on a busy New York City corner on Ash Wednesday and offers “ashes to go.” They mark passersby with the sign of the cross and pray for them. When my son Tim did it, a bus driver pulled up, opened the door, signaled for Tim to come in so he could get ashes on his forehead, then drove off. Whether you ask for ashes in a church–or on a street corner–they are a mark that we’re all made by same Maker. Good to remember on a busy day.

We’re not stuck in the wilderness forever. Jesus was there for only 40 days. There was an end to His trials. While He was in the desert He had to say no to the temptations of power, success, wealth, prestige (the devil can be so sneaky) and then the angels came and took care of Him. Think of that when you face a time of trial. Stay true to who you are. The angels are ready to help. 

Be startled by the cross. Crosses are so fashionable these days, appearing on dresses, cloaks, gowns, jewelry, that it’s easy to forget how shocking the cross really is. Someone once said it would be like wearing an image of an electric chair around your neck. But most often that cross is empty, a reminder of what’s coming. “He is risen,” we say at Easter. He is risen indeed.

We are what we believe. I confess that I felt so self-conscious about getting ashes on Ash Wednesday and everybody seeing them on my forehead (“Why is that person on the subway staring at me?”) that I avoided it for years. Even now I do it at the end of the day. But to believe something is like putting a “heart” emoji on it for all to see. Seems like the cross on my forehead says the same thing.

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