We’ll see a relatively small minority of our neighbors — Catholic and Lutheran mainly — walking around today with black smudges on their foreheads. What’s going on?
Or, as St. John Lutheran Church member Elise Dalton put it, “Why would a contemporary American do something like having your pastor draw a cross on your forehead with burnt, oil-moistened, palm branch ashes?”
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Don’t we have enough depressing stuff on our plate right now with the virus, unemployment, businesses closing, and the impeachment trial? This year, at least, couldn’t we just skip to Easter and spring, to colored eggs and a new spring outfit?
Fr. Stan Kuca, pastor of St. Bernardine, explained that Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season of the church year, for those Christians who follow a liturgical calendar, which is a 40-day-long preparation for Easter.
Donna Gawlas, a longtime and involved member of St. Bernardine, referred to Lent as a “sobering” journey.
“It is a time of self-reflection,” said Gawlas, “and examination of conscience to make changes in my thoughts and in my words, what have I done or failed to do, to be a better follower of Christ.”
Jim Murray, another longtime member of St. Bernardine, added that Ash Wednesday is an important day for him because it reminds him of his mortality which prepares him to really hear the good news of the resurrection on Easter.
“The fasting and penance which are part of Lent for many are not easy, nor should they be,” said Murray, adding that there are nonspiritual benefits as well. “I give up booze and sweets for Lent, and I think doing so is good for both my body and my soul. I usually lose a few pounds and my A1C [diabetes blood test] goes down a little.”
“As the ashes are placed on my head,” said Kathy Roberson, a member of St. John Lutheran Church, “I feel a sadness for the many ways I don’t live my life as God intends. But then because the ashes on my forehead are in the shape of a cross, I think about Jesus, who died for me, because God loves me more than I can even imagine, and then I feel a deep sense of peace.”
Roberson said the focus on mortality on Ash Wednesday puts what’s going on in our lives in spiritual context. “The pandemic, my unemployment, and all the insanity going on in our nation is scary, but nothing new. Just variations on recurring nightmares.”
Another St. John member, Faith Loewe, described how her experience of Ash Wednesday changed as she moved from child to adulthood.
“Growing up as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor all but guaranteed I would be in a pew on Ash Wednesday — and all other Wednesdays in Lent, for that matter,” Loewe said. “Following the imposition of the ashes, it was my childhood habit to try to catch sight of my reflection as soon as possible, to ensure that the ashes had formed into a clear cross and not just a pastor’s thumb smudge.”
Now, she said, “The combination of those two things — the solemn verbal reminder of what awaits all of us at the end of earthly life, and the piercing hope of the Cross — will always keep me in a pew on Ash Wednesday.”
“Having ashes in the shape of a cross put on one’s forehead once a year,” Dalton added, “in no way guarantees that you will not experience anxiety, disease, unemployment, etc., but being confident in the salvation the cross brings to all humanity does help to keep the pits of despair from devouring you.”
St. John’s pastor, Rev. Leonard Payton, said that God uses crises like the pandemic and unemployment to bring us back to spiritual basics. He said, “I think we … find that COVID, racial turmoil, and economic challenges are not the disease; they are the symptom.
“We have so many problems now that only God can solve. We beg for the Lord’s mercy. Church is essential business. Of course, the first order of business is for the priesthood to repent, to remember that we are dust and to dust we will return.”
Fifty years ago, Ernest Becker in his bestselling book, “Denial of Death,” contended that American society in some ways is a massive conspiracy to deny our mortality. Loewe picks up on that theme by saying that Americans will do anything to avoid thinking about their mortality and eventual death.
“Even so,” she continued, “worshipers on Ash Wednesday will face that reality and, ultimately, find hope in their ashen crosses — sobering yet exquisite reminders that, because of Christ’s cross, there is so much more than just this life of dust and ashes.”
Both St. Bernardine and St. John will have in-person worship on Feb. 16, but they will be following strict CDC guidelines. Pastor Payton will use swabs to apply ashes to hands instead of foreheads and Fr. Kuca will sprinkle the ashes on worshipers’ heads. St. Bernardine will hold Mass on Ash Wednesday at 6:30 a.m., noon and 7 p.m. St. John will have services at noon and 7 p.m.