What's that smudge on your face?

Why some Christians walk around with ash on their forehead

It’s Lent again!  Many Christian traditions “celebrate” the season of Lent, forty days before Easter (excluding Sundays and Holy Week), beginning on Ash Wednesday.  Since Easter comes especially early this year,  Ash Wednesday is tomorrow, February 13.


Good Shepherd tried a new thing last year, and stood at the bus stop down by the George Washington Bridge, offering commuters on their way to NYC a quick smudge and a prayer.  We were tentative at first, but got bolder as the morning wore on—some people were amused, some skeptical, some grateful, some puzzled, but I trust we were not offensive.  We’re going to do it again tomorrow morning, from about 7am to about 9am. Good Shepherd also offers a more traditional worship service with Eucharist (Communion) and Imposition of Ashes at 11am at the church.


In the early church, Lent was a time when people who wanted to be baptized were instructed in the faith—they would be baptized at the Easter vigil.  When political leaders were also heads of state churches or faithful Roman Catholics, it was often a time of public penance with the goal of being reconciled to God, the church, and those they had wronged.  It is still a period devoted to prayer, penitence, and alms giving.


For me, Lent is not about punishing myself--life is hard enough without taking on additional suffering!  I use it as a chance to remember the magnitude of God’s love—in God’s eyes I am, and every other human is, God’s favorite, God’s beloved.  That’s easy to forget in the press of everyday life.


I also know that I sin, intentionally and unintentionally, just by being blind to the ways my actions impinge on the well-being of others.  Part of what it is to be human is to wrong ourselves, other people, creation, and God—that’s my understanding of “original sin.” 


I use Lent to remind myself of my desire for God, of God’s longing for me to be the most loving, just, whole human being possible, and to be faithful to my part of God’s work of “mending the world.”  If my primary goal is to love God, my neighbor, and myself—when have I succeeded, and when have I blown it?   What tempts me to keep blowing it?  I’ve lived long enough to get bored by my sins—I keep falling into the same traps.  So I can’t even really promise “never to do X again,” although I can and do promise to try to change my ways, and sometimes life-giving changes last.   Then indeed I celebrate!


 Ashes remind me that I am human, fallible, and deeply loved by the One who made me human and fallible.  They show others that I’m committed to trying to live faithfully.  Christians who seek spiritual renewal, welcome to a season where prayers, readings, and worship offer practical tools to that end.  Come get dirty, come clean, repent and rejoice!





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