I have been a Christian for most of my 35 years, but 2020 was the first time that I celebrated Ash Wednesday. As a newly-confirmed Episcopalian, I felt a sense of spiritual excitement and anticipation as the day grew nearer on the church calendar. I longed for the moment when I would receive my first ashes, thus marking my entrance into a period of mourning and suffering with Christ. I hadn’t decided what I would give up for Lent at that point but, like my Pentecostal/Charismatic formation had taught me, I expected that an experience at the altar would bring clarity. 

That day felt like a particularly holy day, and I found myself full of excitement and spiritual hunger. I could not articulate why, but Ash Wednesday felt like a big deal, so I tried to generate excitement about it in my household. My companion didn’t share the same level of anticipation. He was raised Lutheran and was more than familiar with Ash Wednesday. My three-year-old didn’t quite understand what the fuss was about. My last hope was to try to get my five-year-old on board. Like many kids, she loves holidays and special celebrations, so she was eager to learn more about our “new” observance. 

There’s a song on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood that says, “When we do something new, let’s talk about what we’ll do.” I’ve tried to adopt this as a principle for my kids to help us feel good in new situations. Sometimes it backfires, and I find myself answering a bunch of questions that I’m not prepared for. Our first Ash Wednesday was no different. I wasn’t sure what color the priest would be wearing. I didn’t know if there were special candles like at Advent. I didn’t know what would happen when they put the ashes on. I assumed that it wouldn’t hurt, but I didn’t know for sure. I found myself saying, “we’ll have to watch with our eyes and see what happens,” a saying that I created that’s just a fancy way of saying, “I don’t know.” There was a lot that I didn’t know, but not knowing only increased my excitement to see how and where God would show up. 

Since my oldest had shown solidarity with me in being excited for Ash Wednesday, I rewarded her by making our first observance an exclusive experience to be shared by the two of us. I signed her out of school, and we slid into a pew just before the procession began. We admired the beautiful purple vestments and tried to keep up with what was happening in the service. 

When the time came to receive ashes, we carefully made our way to the front of the church. I adjusted my headwrap so more of my forehead was exposed. Our priest drew a cross on my forehead with the ashes and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” The moment felt both heavy and sacred as I felt surrounded by what I have come to know as the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

That night, I lay in bed reflecting on the day and wondered what God had in store for me during my first Lent. Little did I know that in two weeks’ time, the world that we knew would drastically change. Lent usually lasts 40 days, but my first lent has lasted for nearly a year. 

Our nation has been in an extended period of mourning. Even in times of celebration and triumph, we are not far from the losses that our communities have undertaken. Lent is usually about voluntary self-denial, but the past year has denied us and deprived us without our consent. It almost seems superfluous to observe Lent when we are still wearing the ashes of mourning from last year. Yet I still hope…

I still put my hope in Jesus, who is the author and finisher of our faith. I put my hope in the one who promises to turn our mourning into dancing and to give us the oil of joy for mourning. We have received our ashes. Now we await the beauty of Resurrection Day.