All my life Lent has begun with ashes: black, gritty, and dusty. Throughout these many Lents, I have found myself raising my face to have the ashes applied to my forehead in what often struck me as in the style of an artist, “painted” on in a rather free-form, slightly canted cross.
Often my lashes caught what fell from my forehead, some even falling to my face and clothes. The prayers of “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” or “You are dust and to dust you will return” were sometimes spoken with a quick dismissal as I received the ashes because of the many others participating in the same ritual, or, more frequently, sincerely offered as an expression of solidarity with the minister of the sacramental (an expression of the Church complimentary to a ceremony resembling the sign of the cross, sacraments, etc. ) as they looked me in the eye.
It’s that sincere expression of solidarity that I find myself contemplating, reflecting on as yet another forty-day vigil of the Church’s “springtime” (Lent) calls to heart. I am being led to the upturned faces. Faces so varied in age, complexion, contour, expression, and countless other qualities we may ascribe to them.
I see faces tilted upward, trusting in the love of God who made us and trusting in the person offering the ashes as we allow ourselves to be touched in blessing. I see faces of fellow pilgrims on the journey. I see faces that perhaps “speak” of love, laughter, pain, loneliness, abandonment, ecstasy, prayer, longing, contentment, terror, peace, forgiveness, mercy, healing and hope. They are all amazing and transforming reflections of God!
In this Jubilee Year of Mercy I have found myself taking extra time lately to reverently consider faces. I see those of the homeless, the refugee, the outcast and the stranger. I see the faces of those grieving the loss of a murdered family member, a child caught in the crossfire of hatred and abuse, the anguish of the battered spouse and the victims of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those who simply did not get the “breaks” I did.
I must ask myself as I look at these faces, what “sacramental” am I offering to them? What am I doing to show mercy, to encounter kindness, to see the face of God in all of them? Am I offering a sincere expression of solidarity with these fellow pilgrims? Can I look them in the eye or do I turn away?
I pray that the ashes on my forehead, those caught in my lashes and those on my clothes remind me that I am from and of this earth. I am, in the end, one with the aforementioned. I am called to walk hand in hand with those who need me. I pray that God blesses me this Lent with the right heart to show mercy to those on the margins.
May the cross of ashes on our foreheads this Lent open hearts to the most vulnerable in our lives as we help them carry the cross in their life. May we offer them the solidarity of a fellow human being since we are all created and blest by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.