by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM February 26, 2023
Anyone who knows me would never list “penitential spirit” as one of my striking attributes. Why, then, does Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season, evoke such eagerness in me?
The answer is straightforward: because Ash Wednesdays past hold a particular place in my treasured memories. For quite a few years on this very day, I helped to distribute ashes at a parish in Southeast Queens. The first time I did this, I was not prepared for what would happen. Each subsequent Ash Wednesday, I lived in hope that it would be repeated. And I was never disappointed.
Because, you see, on Ash Wednesday I got to peer into the faces of every person who came forward to receive blessed ashes. Whether I recognized the individual or not was of no consequence. On that day, I didn’t need to know names or stories to discover on every upturned face a raw, unfiltered longing laid bare. Faces lined with sorrow, or marked by weariness, or timid or hesitant or hopeful of a new beginning. They all carried that singular emotion: a longing so pure that I wanted to whisper, “How did you come to be this beautiful person?” A longing so unmistakable that I wanted to weep and fall down in worship at the same time.
Because, you see, while I was blessing with ashes whoever stood before me, all the persons in the approaching line were blessing me by their transparent yearning for the Holy. They were offering me a food I hungered for without recognizing the insistent pangs. Something to remember during all the months my prayer felt like nothing but silence and dry dust. Something to nudge me when my shadow resisted being coaxed into the light. Something to cling to and lift me up when discouragement wrapped itself around me like a winter cloak. Something to bolster my insistence that dreams of a more just and tender world were indeed possible.
Ash Wednesday is past, but I invite you to stand with me now and see what I see. Peer into the faces of those Ash Wednesday strangers.
Better yet, stand in front of a mirror and gaze at the image that gazes back at you. Can you find there the face of one who came from dust, stardust, and was dreamed of since the beginning of time? Can you reverence this body imagined as a unique gift to the universe? Can you recognize the face of a creation who is beloved of the Holy One, every second of today and forever? Can you name the deepest desires of your heart?
Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
You may wish to place before you a mirror or a photo of yourself.
Take a long, loving look at the image which gazes back at you.
Allow your longing to surface. Savor it.
Give thanks to the Holy One who longs in you.
Featured Image: KTMD Entertainment, Unsplash
Blessings of this season to you.
May I ask you to hold in your prayer this Lenten event:
March 3-4: Travel and a retreat day I’ll be leading at the Sisters of St. Joseph Spirituality Center in Ocean Grove, NJ. Please remember all who will be part of this day as we remember you and your intentions. Thank you.
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