The first time I did it, I was 26.
I was in Boston for a training session, and prior to the first event, I had some wandering time to myself. It was Ash Wednesday, so I looked up the Episcopal cathedral and went for service.
It was the first time I saw a female priest (!!! and that's a whole 'nother story!!!). And it was the first time I really HEARD the Gospel from the Ash Wednesday liturgy.
It's, like, crazy, man! It says "do one thing," (wash your face, smile, don't complain) and then the liturgy leads us to completely do another (get ashes on your face and walk around with them on you all day long). WHAT!?
So I got my ashes, and I rode the train back to my hotel, thinking about that paradox, and noticing that I seemed to fit right in, in Catholic Boston; more people had ashes than didn't. In my hotel room, I met my roommate and we watched TV news together. The Gulf War was on and that night SCUD missiles were falling in Israel. I learned that she was Jewish.
Before we left for the opening reception, I washed off my forehead ashes. My roommate hadn't remarked on them before, but she said, "I thought you were supposed to leave those on!" I said, "I don't think there's really a rule about it."
There's not. And ever since then, I've washed away those ashes as soon as possible after I've received them. It's important to me to get them, and to remember my mortality and that of those I love, and those I DON'T love, and everyone in the world. To participate with my faith community in that liturgy. And then, it's time to move on.
The whole Ash Wednesday liturgy is a church history thing...not a Jesus thing. It's a tradition, a practice. Nowhere in the Bible does it say to do the things we do. That doesn't mean they are bad; but it does mean we might want to look at them with new eyes to see how they really work for us. In my tradition, we "bury the Alleluias" and do not use the word during Lent. And mercy, does THAT sometimes get to be silly. If it's accidentally uttered, oh no! such comment! We refer to it as "the a-word." Oy.
I don't "give up" things for Lent anymore, either. It ends up not meaning much to me besides a contest of wills, which becomes an obsession. I know that I can have the strongest will in the world; it's a way of showing off to myself. But that doesn't get me any closer to Jesus. (My friend Songbird wrote a great homily from which I borrow the "show-off" language.)
Yesterday I posted a link about a positive way of looking at Lent. And that really "hit me where I live" later, in reading my friend Kirstin's latest blog post. Kirstin has metastatic melanoma. She's been living (and I mean LIVING) with this disease for three years now and blogging her journey. She writes, for Ash Wednesday:
I need to claim Easter now, because I have no idea if I’ll be here on the liturgical date. My hope is in the Resurrection; I’ll be damned if I’m putting that off for six weeks because the church tells me it’s time to. I’m with the Orthodox; why are we ever proscribed from praising? God’s nature does not change because of our season.
What am I doing for Lent? Saying alleluia and living in the moment. Seizing the joys that I can find. Looking for perfect nows. Spending time with friends. Being alive and awake in love.
And I say, with Kristin and for Kristin, and for all of us in the world and our fears and pains and hopes: Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.