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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

I was prepared, when I sat here, to write about the short shrift that Ash Wednesday gets from Christians in this country, especially when compared to the end of Lent, Easter. I just got back from my church's service, and I joked with my lady that it had about a tenth of the people in attendance as would be dressed in their finest on Easter Sunday, packing the pews to capacity. I found it interesting that the end of a period of sacrifice is so much more celebrated, is so much more joyous than the beginning. But in a religion in which suffering became the pathway to our forgiveness, Ash Wednesday serves as a reminder that the pain's the thing, as Shakespeare might say.

But there's something about this day that rings much truer for me. For in reflection, I find that Ash Wednesday wasn't the beginning of a trial for me. It signaled the beginning of the end.

I remember learning, when I was a child, that the ashes used on Ash Wednesday to smear the foreheads of millions at the beginning of Lent were the burned remnants of the dried, dead palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday, mixed with sacred oils. Whether or not that's true for every church, I don't know. But faith is in part a choice, and as I have faith in God and His Son, I choose to believe it.

For me, faith has been a struggle. I have had doubts about the Almighty, stemming mostly from the scientific, pragmatic way I approach problem-solving and investigation. I first found the Bible approachable as a literary text, making some of its flights of fancy (A burning bush? Really?) easier for me to accept when I was younger. I kept my doubts secret, mostly out of cowardice. But my academic nature (similar to many other situations) was won over by passion in fits and starts. It was hard to see that good fortune that befell me as I grew up, to see the faith in works done by so many close to me, to hear the preachings of my beloved pastor and not think that somehow, God was at work.

Then Andre died.

My cousin had been missing for months. Ironically, I learned of his murder when I came home from a church service. The closest thing I've had to a brother was murdered by someone he'd trusted, so in my 15-year-old wisdom, I made the leap that since the prayers for Andre's protection had been cruelly refused, I'd refuse to pray. What's the point of trusting God when the man Andre had trusted had (literally) stabbed him in the back?

My first experience with death had scarred me deeply. After I left for college, I went churchless for over a decade. With one notable exception. See, I worked in midtown NYC, blocks away from the famous St. Patrick's Cathedral. I wasn't a Catholic, but I made a point on every Ash Wednesday to get in the Yankee Stadium-on-Opening Day-length line to receive the mark on my forehead. I hadn't grown up doing so, and there was a part of me that did it merely out of the appreciation of custom. But it was always clear to me that ashes are meant for the faithful, and it seems now that I waited in that line and knelt before the priest because it made me feel that, on one day at least, I was a man of faith again. I could believe.

I could expand on this at greater length, but my point is clear. The ashes didn't put me back on the path, but they gave me a reminder, in a time of my life in which I could have very easily fallen victim to self-indulgence and vanity (in other words, my twenties), that there was a path at all. After all, it was staring me right in the face, every time I looked in the mirror.

My vanity still gets the best of me at times, and I'm far from perfect. But I'm been on the path for a while now, and as I trudge along (with increasing speed) to a faithful life, I'm reminded tonight about how that journey back to Christ began.

Ash Wednesday may get the short shrift. But never from me.


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