Saint Louis taught me much of what I know about the Catholic faith. The city. Not the Saint.
Growing up Protestant, I only knew a few things about Catholics. Their worship service was called Mass, they threw lots of parties at the local Knights of Columbus Hall and they didn’t eat meat on Fridays for a few weeks leading up to Easter.
Then, one Wednesday morning several years ago, while working in St. Louis, I attended a business meeting. One of our clients arrived with ashes smudged on his forehead. I knew enough not to stare, but I didn’t know anything about why he carried this mark.
Later, I asked my coworker. In my late-20s, I learned a new Catholic tradition. Ash Wednesday.
According to the website for St. Gregory Orthodox Church in Washington D.C.:
“The solemn ceremony of blessing ashes made from the previous year’s burned palms and using these ashes to mark the foreheads of the faithful has become almost universally used in Western churches to begin the penitential season of Lent.”
Much different from the Easter celebrations of my childhood! We’d make mention of the crucifixion on Good Friday (often getting a day off from school). Then, on Easter Sunday, we’d have a sunrise service followed by a church-wide breakfast. We’d return home to open our Easter basket goodies and put on our new Easter attire before singing “Up From the Grave He Arose” at church. The afternoon’s activities included a luncheon and an Easter Egg hunt at grandma’s.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Although brisk, the sunrise services offered a beautiful time of reflection. The men at our church could cook up a serious breakfast. I looked spectacular in my new dresses and Easter bonnets. What I wouldn’t give to celebrate this holiday with grandma and all my cousins again.
But after learning about Ash Wednesday, leading to further education on the Lenten season (it’s about a lot more than fish on Fridays), I wanted to know why my Catholic brothers and sisters went to all this trouble.
Does their participation in a sacramental give them something of Jesus I haven’t received?
Fast forward about 15 years. Back in St. Louis. A girlfriend and I lounged around the pool watching our kids play one afternoon. We had no way of knowing the conversation would turn so serious. Well, except it shouldn’t be a surprise to me. Serious conversations are my very favorite kind.
She’s a devout Catholic. Over the years I’d read many books on church history, liturgy, the church calendar. My church even had an Ash Wednesday service of our own. Once. I’ve written a handful of posts about the church calendar year. I entered this conversation more prepared than I’d been all those years ago. Right?
We had such a rich conversation about faith. Why Catholics attend Confession. Why Protestants don’t. What the rhythm of a church year offers a believer. From this sister in Christ, who has a close relationship with our Savior, she suggested that all of these things help her remember. Renew her focus not on things of this world, but on godly things. They draw her into sacred moments that strengthen her faith.
She had my attention.
Then, in preparing for this post, God showed me a verse to further explain the meaning behind all of these rituals and holy days and festivals and fasts. Holy moments set apart from our everyday moments. Whether you choose to participate or not.
God spoke to Moses: “Tell the Israelites, ‘Above all, keep my Sabbaths, the sign between me and you, generation after generation, to keep the knowledge alive that I am the God who makes you holy.'" Exodus 31:13 (The Message)
A sign. To keep the knowledge alive.
Here, God was instructing Moses about the Sabbath. But the idea seems transferrable. I think that’s what I’m walking away with as I consider participating in an Ash Wednesday service this year. At the local Catholic Church. As a Protestant.
For you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Genesis 3:19b (ESV)
Our lives get busy. So much noise. Perhaps you could use a little help this Lenten season to turn your eyes upon Jesus. Not another legalistic set of rules to follow. But a realization that we’re so far off from all Jesus would have for us. A reminder that our time here on earth is so very short. Centuries ago, the church carved out times for us to do this.