It was a Wednesday morning. Nothing unusual was happening in the classroom where I was teaching an English literature class of grade nine students. Nothing unusual, except they were more attentive than usual.
Something was different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then a bell rang – not the usual “time for the class to end” bell – but a different bell. Somehow the students knew what it meant. They slowly got out of their seats and headed in single file to the door, quietly. “Miss”, one of the students said, “We’ll be back once we’ve been to the chapel and had the ashes put on our foreheads.”
Just then the Principal came into the classroom and ushered the students out – apologizing profusely that she’d not advised me about the interruption ahead of time. “The students will be back in the classroom in about half an hour” she said. And with that, she and the students left the classroom. No explanation. I was confused.
I was barely twenty – my first teaching position – a Roman Catholic school. My knowledge of Christianity, let alone Roman Catholicism, at the time was very, very limited. Though I had been raised in a loving home, I had not been baptized nor been exposed to a church that marked something called Ash Wednesday. All of this was so new to me.
The school was quiet – no one in the corridors. The only sound I heard came from the Chapel – quiet music, muted voices. When the students returned to the classroom, they were sombre and their foreheads had black substance smudged on it. Something about them was different, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. So I asked them to tell me where they had been.
The students seemed to take delight in being my teacher! “Today is the day when we tell God we are very sorry for the times we’ve moved away from Him.”
I wondered, and asked, “Why the public display of the cross on your foreheads?
“Ah, Miss, that reminds us that we’re all human and that we began as dust and will end as dust.”
Sounded to me like an ugly threat – “You’re going to die!” Well, I knew I wouldn’t live forever, but why would anyone want to go to church to be reminded, every year, that “from dust you have come; to dust you will go”? It seemed incredibly maudlin to me.
Later, I met Harold who told me a story about his growing up years when his friends said they were going to go to Chapel to receive the imposition of ashes and invited him along. He went, not because he wanted to, but because his friends had invited him. And, he told me, he was curious about it all. And then, something happened.
He continued sharing his story with me … “As I received the ashes, all at once I realized in a whole new way, that it’s really true – “We are dust and we will return to dust when we die.” He said that at that moment, he realized that life was transitory and that he wouldn’t live forever. While he knew that intellectually before that experience, in that first imposition of ashes, it “really hit home.” He continues going to an Ash Wednesday service somewhere, every year, after that as a reminder that he is mortal and that every day is an opportunity to make a difference in some way in the world.
Today is known by many people around the world as Ash Wednesday. It’s a day which reminds us, quite soberly, that we are not immortal. It reminds us that without some help, it is impossible to handle our problems, fears, our worries.
The words “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return” are certainly no one’s favourite words, but they represent a truth. We are human and before we die, we need to do what we can to make the world around us a little bit better than when we arrived.
September 11th did that. But then, we went about our lives and tried to forget the horrific scenes that were played over and over on the television.
For me, that’s why having the opportunity to participate in the imposition of ashes once a year is a gift … a precious opportunity to acknowledge my humanity, my vulnerability, my mortality.
Ash Wednesday begins the six week (forty days) Season of Lent in the Christian world – a time of introspection and of solitude with God. It’s a time to “slow down and take stock” of our life.
Some people use the Season of Lent to fast … fast from rich foods, fast from festivities.
I prefer the approach attributed to Pope Francis in response to the question “Do you want to fast this Lent?”
Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
Fast from worries and trust in God.
Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.
However the next forty days/six weeks unfold, may this world be a place of fasting such as Pope Francis envisions.
May this be a holy Lent.