I remember first learning about the Ash Wednesday service from my Catholic college roommate, who joined me later than usual at our dining hall for dinner. “Where did you just come from?” I asked her, hoping that she’d explain the mysterious charcoal smear on her forehead. “The Ash Wednesday service on campus,” she replied matter-of-factually. “Oh,” I said. As she looked down at her food, I scrutinized her forehead, still pondering at the meaning of the charcoal mark. Too embarrassed to ask her, I decided I would learn about it from Professor Google later.
At the time, I had assumed it was one of the many differences between our religious practices—that Lutherans like myself didn’t share these worship traditions with Catholics. To my surprise, Professor Google showed me that many denominations held Ash Wednesday services, and somehow, I had spent my entire life never having attended one. Sure, I knew Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, but beyond that superficial understanding, I hadn’t thought about it much. The following year, I went to my first Ash Wednesday service on campus, experiencing the imposition of ashes for the first time in my life. I felt self-conscious afterwards walking through campus with this highly visible mark of my faith in my secular college community.
The mark of ashes is perhaps one of the few visible marks of Christianity that I’ve noticed in the
United States, where Christians often blend in with their secular counterparts in everyday life. Lent is also a time of the year when Christians appear more conspicuous in social settings, often refraining from certain foods by declaring that they have “given it up for Lent.” But the cynical side of me wonders at the frivolity of these Lenten sacrifices of alcohol and desserts.
This past year has certainly demanded more sacrifices from me than I had anticipated. After losing my last grandparent, I found myself constantly worried about my relatives under lock down in Wuhan, uncertain if I would ever see them again. It has been hard knowing that I can’t help my elderly parents should they succumb to COVID-19. Aside from my husband, I haven’t interacted with anyone else in person. I haven’t seen my family and friends for the past year, and I haven’t traveled anywhere beyond a twenty-mile radius around my house. But when I think about what God has given me in spite of these difficult circumstances, I find solace in knowing that He has not forgotten me, even when I have forgotten Him during my darkest moments of despair.
Frankly, I’m too exhausted to think about “giving something up for Lent” this year. After all,
giving up desserts feels so frivolous right now when there are greater sacrifices that must be
made for our collective health and safety. (And yes, giving up desserts also feels unbearably
cruel when baking is one of the few pandemic pleasures I enjoy!) But this year, I think I’ll do
what I used to do as a child when my Sunday School teacher implored us to give up more time
for God. “Instead of giving up some thing,” she instructed us, “we can give up some of our free
time and devote that time to God.”
So next time you see me at a Zoom party, let me virtually declare that I will need to sign off
early because I am giving up my free time to devote myself to God during these forty days of
Lent. (I promise it’s not because I’m Zoomed out for the day.)
Photo taken at Mercy Community Church Ash Wednesday service, February 17, 2021.