I never understood why they did it. As a child, they would march our whole grammar school, Kindergarteners and all, into the church for Ash Wednesday. They would have us pray together, and then stand us in single-file lines as they individually spread ashes on each of our foreheads.
“Remember you are dust. And to dust you shall return,” they would say. The words almost being rubbed into my soul as much as the ashes on my skin.
That opening of the lenten season would close for us on Good Friday, as we would endure the silence of the Stations of the Cross together. I never knew why they would have children participate in such a solemn, sorrowful acts.
Now I know.
Those corporate prayers of repentance may have seemed lofty and burdensome as a child. But now, they seem strangely comforting. They gave words and movements to thoughts and ideas about a grief that seemed too much to understand: Our Savior was murdered. We murdered him. And we continue in our violence every day, in every generation. In our pain, and in our sorrow, and in our frustration of this life, we do not keep it together. We steal. We kill. We destroy.
And yet, Lent proclaimed that our sin is not the end of the story. That even our recklessness could be reduced to dust. And even more, in our broken state, God would show us a way to make it through together: Him locked into us, and us locked into one another.
For the people I grew up with, that meant community. It meant soup kitchens on Friday evenings in church basements. It meant special blessings over Easter baskets (hoping that as our food was sanctified, so we too could be sanctified). It meant adoration and benediction — that is, concentrated time on our knees, talking to Jesus, looking at Jesus, and asking for Oneness. But above all else, It meant we needed God and we needed each other.
Lent, more than any time of the year, calls out for this truth. It invites us to be vulnerable with one another, to share our sorrow and our sin, and to hope for a better day.
From breaking open paczkis or cutting into a King cake together, to Friday night fish frys, to refrains of “Were You There,” Lent is all about feeling the pain and then sharing the load. It’s about grieving with those who grieve. It’s about being drenched in our humanity, and finding that it doesn’t break us.
May you dive deep into your humanity this lent, and find that your soul won’t be swallowed whole.