Have you ever celebrated Ash Wednesday? I never really got this day as a kid. I grew up Catholic so we celebrated it each year but I didn’t get it. I liked the black ash tattoos and the “ew, yours is dark” and “ew, yours is runny” game we played, and I liked the excuse to wear dirt around on my head all day. But, I didn’t get the point. Back then, I didn’t know what the cross meant. But I had the opportunity to participate in Ash Wednesday in a way that marked its meaning forever in my soul.
I came to our pre-Ash meeting with a few too many cups of coffee in my system, so our team was a little worried I might start dancing in the aisles. But by the time that room filled with people and the music began to play it was clear we were coming together for something serious. As a family of believers we came to crack open our souls and admit to God what we found there—desperate wickedness we could not hide and frailty we could not fix. We invited him to enter in and cleanse us as only he can. We asked him to save us from ourselves.
When the time came, I walked up to the front with the rest of “the ashers," picked up a tiny dish full of black soot, soaked it in water and waited to begin. I stood there as person after person, young and old, familiar and unfamiliar approached me. They each stopped directly in front of me, breathed in and closed their eyes. There is something profound about that moment. That powerful moment when another human being lets you reach out and tenderly touch their face. With somber tones playing behind me, I dug my finger into the gritty, muddy ash and made a cross bar on their forehead. As I did, I whispered, “the wages of your sin is death." I watched as their faces winced from the discomfort of ashes sliding across their skin and the weight of those words sinking in. And then with hope in my voice I reached out again finished their cross saying, “But the gift of God is LIFE through Jesus Christ our Lord."
And then, like the news that their hard labor finally came to an end, like hearing the words ‘clean scan,' I watched their brows release, their faces wash with relief, eyes fill with tears, and many say, Amen… Amen… Amen. But, it had to be the kiddos that were my favorite. I would get down on one knee and they would approach, ever so timidly. So many of them had never experienced this before, but their tiny little bodies stood before me bravely as they steadied themselves with mommy’s hand. Their little eyes stared straight into mine as I began their cross. I explained it to them differently, “The payment for your sin is death," their faces perplexed, trying to piece together this puzzle in their mind. And then I said, “but God gave you life in Jesus!” And with that, their eyes would open wide with wonder, and a twinkling of a smile would come across their lips, and they would walk away like something remarkable had happened they didn’t quite understand. And with each one I would find myself silently praying, “God help them get this… help them get this the way my little heart didn’t… write this on their souls as I write it on their heads… help them know deep inside you gave them life.…”
And I found with each face, young or old, each touch, smooth skinned or wrinkled brow, as I wrote this truth on their forehead, I wrote it deeper and deeper on my soul. The wages of sin is death…the payment for my rebellion is death… left to my own devices all I have is death…. But God gave me life in Jesus. Amen… Amen… Amen.
Written by Betsy, who harbors a dream to change the world. She works with young adults near Dallas, Texas.