My mom and I have been sneaking off to Catholic Mass each Ash Wednesday morning for the past few years.
We spend the hour soaking our Baptist bones in Catholic liturgy and leave with dark smudges on our foreheads.
My mom is the director of a preschool at a local Baptist church and, last year, one of the little boys from the preschool went home on Ash Wednesday and told his parents all about “Ms. Pam’s new face tattoo.”
Of course, when she told me this story, adding that the child’s mom had been genuinely interested to see whether or not this tattoo rumor was true, I thought it was cute.
But the story also made me pause for a moment. I’d guess that the majority of people with tattoos have chosen them for specific reasons and that there would be specific meaning behind the ink.
What if our Ash Wednesday crosses really were tattoos? What would they mean? What would they say about us?
I didn’t grow up in a tradition that really spent much time on Lent, much less Ash Wednesday.
What I thought I knew about Lent and those who observed it was this: on Fat Tuesday you have a big party, on Ash Wednesday you tell God you’re sorry for the party, and then you spend the time between then and Easter not eating chocolate to show God how sorry you are.
It has only been within the last decade or so that I’ve come to understand what Lent is really about.
Marjorie J. Thompson, the author of Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, writes that the spirit behind the season of Lent is one of surrender.
It’s a way for us to return to God’s original plan for the world – before we knew shame and sinfulness, before we decided that we didn’t need to rely on God when there was a tree full of knowledge of good and evil from which we could pluck fruit whenever we wanted.
Lent is a time of surrendering our “do-it-myself-ness,” loosening our grip on whatever control we think we have and returning to the heart of God.
Ash Wednesday is the opening verse of this Lenten song we spend all season humming. It’s a day for acknowledging how big of a mess we’ve made on our own, for that crestfallen feeling that comes when you realize, “Wow God, I am not you.”
We mark our foreheads with ash and remember that we are dust – we’re not fit to be in charge nor were we ever meant to be. Ash Wednesday is for climbing back into the lap of our loving God like the shameless and free children we were created to be.
This is the sentiment behind our Ash Wednesday face tattoos – we’re not God, as difficult as that is for us to admit, but we’re loved by God and we’re learning how to love God more.
I can think of little else more unifying than knowing that every stranger you see at the grocery store or on the sidewalk who bears a smudge of ash sat with you that very day at the feet of God.
I like to envision that, on days like Ash Wednesday when the whole of the church comes together in repentance and surrender, the world is cosmically tilted on its axis.
A whole globe full of people collectively turning their dirty faces towards God and the kingdom coming a little nearer than it was as a result.
May it be so this day.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series for article for the Lenten season. An article reflecting on the lectionary texts for each Sunday during Lent will appear weekly, beginning tomorrow (Thursday, February 18).
Minister to Youth at Millbrook Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, she is an Ernest C. Hynds Intern at Good Faith Media for the spring 2021 semester.