Growing up Catholic meant that Ash Wednesday was a big deal in our school and our church. Personally, I never cared for it all that much.
Part of the reason was that Ash Wednesday marked the start of giving up something until Easter. Usually, it was the start of doing without candy or soft drinks or ice cream. I recall that one year, a family on my street decided they would give up television for Lent, which seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.
The ashes never thrilled me, either. The pastor of my immigrant church in Cleveland loved the ashes and would make a HUGE, messy sign of the cross on everyone’s forehead, turning them into a giant hot-cross bun for the rest of the day. Of course, we weren’t allowed to wipe off the ashes until we got home, so the little black flakes ended up on everything.
(By contrast, the younger associate priest in the parish would just leave a thumb-print mark of ashes on the forehead. We tried to gravitate to his line.)
Ashes on everything
What bothered me most about the day, though, was the message. It was so dark and seemed to be about beating up people simply for coming up short – which, of course, is the total opposite of the original message.
The person who started the movement went around telling people that they are blessed and beloved and beautiful and worth more than they can possibly imagine. He spent his life trying to build up those who were getting beat down by their religious and economic and social and political systems.
And he said that his followers must do the same. Forgive, embrace, include, heal and love everyone.
I totally get why so many people are turned off by Ash Wednesday, the way it has devolved over the centuries. We’re all bleeding in some ways, and the last thing we need is someone lecturing us on how we deserve to bleed. Instead, we need someone to take the time to stop, gently bandage our wounds, end the bleeding and start the healing.
That’s what the ashes represent – a reminder that every day is a precious gift and we mustn’t waste it. Day by day, we need to grow in love and shine more brightly.
The ashes also remind us that that we are intimately bound to everything and everyone, and we must live as such. The creation stories teach us so beautifully and poetically that everything — including you and me – is made from the same stuff.
In our diversity, we’re kindred creations. And it’s all very, very good.
The star that you are
One of the many cool revelations of science is that everything in the universe is built with the same divine tool box. Everything and everyone is made from the same set of elements, the same holy ingredients.
We are more than sacred earth dust. We are sacred star dust, too.
And like the stars, we are made to shine, each in our own way and in our own place. We’re meant to provide light for the world, and we can’t hide from our responsibility. We mustn’t build walls between ourselves and others and cower in the shadow of fear, insecurity and certitude.
Mostly, we need to stop listening to the voices telling us that we don’t matter, we’re not important, we don’t measure up, we’re not good enough or worthy of unconditional love.
That’s what we need to give up – paying attention to those voices.
Instead, be the star that you are. In your way, bring love and compassion and healing into the world as best you can. Let every speck of dust remind you of the Source of your light and your brilliance.
Go and shine.