By the time I reached the grocery store parking lot this evening, my mind already had turned from the Mass I’d just attended toward my next task: a fishstick-finding mission. But it didn’t take long for the reminder to hit — right between the eyes. As soon as I walked through the doors of the store, I began seeing them on the foreheads of shoppers analyzing fruit, discerning salad choices and examining bread options: those little black marks indicating another Ash Wednesday celebration has taken place. Passing by a mirrored meat display, I couldn’t help but notice the imperfect ash cross smudged across my own forehead. And though in the middle of a very ordinary moment, the significance of the smudge struck me as I saw the marking for what it is: a reminder that this life, my life, is passing away.
“You came from dust, and to dust you shall return.” Those are the words said to more than a billion Christians every year as, one by one, a black Lenten cross is traced on their forehead. Do we dread these words, as some of my friends recently have admitted, or do they bring us a sense of wonder as we contemplate the fleeting nature of our lives?
We live in a culture that often wants to shirk death, to pretend it’s not going to happen to us. We obsess over our living and how to lengthen our time on this earth. But should we focus on quantity or quality? It’s human nature, I think, to regard our ending with some amount of dread, but I find those words largely comforting. Humbling, yes, but freeing, too. We are here for but a short time. What will we do with our time? We are not guaranteed tomorrow, so what will we do with today?
The church was standing-room only tonight, and I think I know one reason why. We desperately need these little reminders, these markings of the passing of time and another season, of our need to turn more introspectively so that we can make the best choices while they are ours to make. The most content people, I have to believe, are those who, at their end, feel they have used their finite time here in as meaningful a way as possible.
After dinner, I reluctantly did a Target run with my daughter and son to buy some needed school supplies. Again, we came upon numerous people with ashes on their foreheads. My amused daughter kept looking up at me, giggling. I can understand her amusement. It’s not everyday we can identify our fellow Christians simply by looking at their faces. It was a comforting feeling seeing so many others who are walking a similar path. Some might find these Lenten markings odd, even a bit eerie, but it is not intended to be a showy, “I’m a Christian, see my black mark,” kind of thing, but more of an, “I’m a Christian trying my best to live a conscientious life, doing so quite imperfectly, as you can see by this black, imperfect cross, but trying nevertheless.” We need one another.
And so it has officially begun. I was the cantor at Mass this evening, and asked my 8-year-old daughter to join me. I want her to get used to singing in front of a large crowd. Starting now will help her feel less intimidated when the time comes for her to song-lead, I am hoping. I felt glad to have her with me, and it brought me back to those long-ago days when I would get crossed with ash, then run home to look at the strange mark in the mirror. It was a curiosity back then, and I’m sure my daughter had the same sense of confliction in Target I used to feel when in public with my cross: self-conscious mixed with a bit of giddy.
I feel blessed to be able to share these traditions that began in my childhood with my children. Our lives might be fleeting, but through our children, there is a sense that even after we’re gone, something of us will be left behind. I want that something of myself to be life-giving. My daughter’s bright, curious eyes give me the hope it could be.