“Memento, homo … quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris” (cf. Gn 3:19).
“Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.”
My mother would wake my sister and I early on every Ash Wednesday for the 7 a.m. Mass. We would get dressed and completely packed for school and be on the road just five minutes before Mass began. We would then file into pews as the sun slowly rose behind the painted glass, receiving our ashes from the priest while still arriving to school on time.
“Don’t rub them off,” my mother would tell us as she dropped us off for school, eyeing my older sister. “Those should last all day.”
My sister and I were too young to realize everything the ashes represent, but we knew they were important. Still, she was just old enough to care what people thought of her and I was just young enough to follow my sister’s example. She swiped her bangs across her forehead the minute my mother was out of sight. I knew it was wrong, but I did the same thing when my sister walked to her class. It was never popular to be different, after all.
As a child, I found it difficult to understand everything that my mother taught me to do in order to be a good Catholic. It was nearly impossible to understand why I practiced certain religious traditions in the first place, much less explain them to the rest of my classmates. My cross of ashes wasn’t the norm and it became a popular topic throughout elementary school because I was almost always the only one who had a cross. Classmates stared and some were even brave enough to say “you’ve got a little something on your forehead” in the middle of class. This was the most common reaction because so few of the people I encountered knew that the smudged black mark in the middle of my forehead was purposeful. I was always grateful when a teacher would redirect students who stared at me because what was I suppose to say to them? Didn’t you know that you are dust, and to dust you shall return?
There are many Catholic practices that aren’t easily explained to people who have never gone to a Catholic church. We are characterized in so many ways— including the assumptions and misconceptions that spread like wildfire—making it hard to explain our practices to others without finding ourselves uncomfortable with judgements. Most of the time, it isn’t until the season of Lent that I feel a little more separated from the average Christian. It used to be a bad feeling to be different. Luckily, things have changed since then.
Today, I celebrate Ash Wednesday with a knowledge and joy that I couldn’t in other years. Today, I will attend Hope College’s chapel for the first time and only time this year in order to receive an ash cross from the priest of my church. Today, Lent begins and the season which reminds me daily of my religious promise becomes part of my rhythm of life. Today will be a good day.