Dave handed me a small card with the words "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel" written upon it. I clutched the card tightly during the first half of Mass and glanced at it over and over again, afraid that I would forget the words.
When the time came to distribute the ashes, Fr. Joe invited those who were helping to come to the front of church to receive their ashes first. When he firmly placed the cross of ashes upon my forehead, Fr. Joe said, "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Maybe he didn't get the cue card, I thought. But I decided that it would be easier to remember to speak about dust as I was smearing it upon foreheads and so I followed Fr. Joe's example. After the helpers received their ashes, Fr. Joe turned to me and asked me to place the ashes upon his forehead.
My hand trembled as I shoved my thumb into the dish of ashes, and faintly drew a cross upon Fr. Joe's forehead, whispering the reminder to him that he was dust. Something about this sinful woman reminding a holy priest of his littleness felt extremely humbling. But maybe it wasn't because he was a priest. Maybe, I was soon to discover with each forehead that was presented to me, distributing ashes was meant to humble the distributor as much as the receiver.
The church was standing room only, and soon I was smearing crosses upon the elderly, children and babies. It wasn't long before it felt like a physically taxing exercise as I bent down for the children and reached up for those who were tall. When my two youngest children and my husband stood before me, all smiles, I recalled all of the moments when I had traced the cross upon their forehead in a blessing, with a clean and dry thumb, sans the ashes, and the words, "God bless you" instead of "You are dust."
With each person who stood before me, waiting for the reminder of their sinful humanity as they embarked upon yet another Lenten season, I thought of Christ, with his face down in the dirt of the Via Dolorosa during his three falls and I wished I were wiping the dirt off of their faces, like Veronica, instead of marking them with it. And yet, when I washed the ashes off my own forehead before I went to bed that night, I prayed that a faint shadow of the cross would remain, reminding me of my need for Him and my gratitude for all that He suffered for the likes of me.
I receive the ashes that label me as His child, His own.
The dust flakes down into my eyes, flirting with my lashes and
blurring my vision of worldly things, reminding me that the
spiritual realm can often contain that which is dirty, dusty and dark.
The ash that marks me settles deep within my soul,
mingling with the sorrow and joy that God's love
has carefully placed within my life.
I am marked as His own and will carry that mark
from my forehead to my soul
beyond this season of Lent and into forever.