It's hard to believe that it's already the first day of the 2008 Lenten season, but it is. Today was a full day at work so I was really looking forward to closing the day with Mass at my parish.
In the same way that our parish is deliberate about its weekly celebration of Sunday liturgy, it is also intentional about walking the Lenten journey together. Today's liturgy was no different: reverant and engaging and motivating.
In one way, however, today's Liturgy was different because I had the grace-filled opportunity to assist with the distribution of ashes. For many years now, our parish has had lay leaders and ministers assist in this ritual after the ashes are blessed by the priest. Anytime I have the opportunity to have a more participatory role in a liturgy or sacred experience I try to be focused about it and appreciative of the opportunity. I've been a music minister on many occasions over the years, a lector, a Eucharistic Minister, a greeter, a presenter of the offertory gifts, a reader, a planner, to name a few. But this was the very first time I assisted with the distribution of ashes, and it was an soul-opening experience.
Each time I placed my thumb into the small bowl of blessed ashes and embarked upon making the sign of the cross on the forehead of the person before me, I tried to convey a true sense of invitation as I stated the words our parish uses: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel."
As I performed this ritual over 100 times, sometimes upon faces I recognized, sometimes upon faces I did not recognize, I was struck many times by the range of facial expressions and postures of the individuals who come forth to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday and I came to realize the profoundly personal and intimate God and person experience that coming forth to receive ashes is.
Much has been said, often critically, sometimes sadly, about the people who only come to Church on Ash Wednesday, who only come for ashes and rarely or never come for Eucharist. In our parish we are deliberate in expressing how glad we are you are here with us today, hoping that the spirit of genuine welcome helps to overcome whatever has kept a person away. However, as I distributed ashes, I came to realize (thankfully) how the act of coming for ashes - whether for the frequent Church-goer or the "estranged" -- isn't about the ashes: coming forward for ashes is about bowing before God to receive God's invitation to "turn away from sin and be faithful for the Gospel," hoping that God's grace will provide the power and strength needed to do that. The signing of the cross with ashes on the forehead means that, at minimum, the person is open to the invitation and the possibility that God's grace will take root and make its home within him/her. For that we should be grateful and, yes, even rejoice in God's goodness.
As the distribution of ashes to the congregation concluded, the choir was still singing so we waited to be able to include them in the marking of ashes ritual as well. Once we had concluded, I returned my small dish of ashes to the stand next to the cauldron in which the blessed palms were burnt and after bowing before the altar returned to my seat. As the Mass continued, I contemplated what I had experienced, marked by the backdrop of the song "We rise again from ashes, from the good we've failed to do...", and thought of the invitation that God has extended to me: "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel."
As the Liturgy drew to a close, I realized that, for me, the challenge of the invitation is found in the "and": the Lenten journey is about turning away from sin (our human weaknesses) AND being faithful to the Gospel. I pray that I may be receptive to God's grace that awaits me.
Let's continue to pray for one another as we walk this journey with Jesus!