Queuing up for ashes

Today I queued up to receive ashes on my forehead. I’ve stood in line for cinema tickets, at supermarket tills, at airport check-in desks and, only recently, to receive the Eucharist. This is the first time I’ve joined people quietly waiting their turn to receive a sign of penance and be reminded of their mortality.
I haven’t been too sure about Ash Wednesday. It seemed like another strange thing which Catholics do and Protestants don’t. Becoming a Catholic is like entering a foreign country where people have different customs which I’m struggling to follow. It’s a very humbling to be probably at least half-way through my life and realise that I have so much to learn.
I wondered if I would go to the church today. I was curious, but a little bit scared, because it wasn’t a regular Saturday evening or Sunday morning Mass. I asked myself, as I often do, what’s the point of going to church not just on Ash Wednesday, but on any day at all.
Last year, I went to Mass on Easter Sunday for the first time in my life. The church was packed and there was an incredible feeling of joy and celebration. It wasn’t quite my first Easter Sunday service ever, but I hadn’t attended many because Easter wasn’t celebrated in the church I grew up in.
I decided today that I can’t expect to understand the full meaning of the Easter celebrations if I don’t also take part in Ash Wednesday and Lent. After I got over hoping no-one noticed that I didn’t know what to do, I was glad that I went. The church was solemn and quiet and I felt that we are all in this together, struggling, failing, and yet still turning towards God. I had read that last year’s Easter palms were burnt to make the ashes we received, and I thought about how sorrow and joy are often closely interlinked.
I was glad that I made the effort to go out today, because it was a chance to set aside other things for a short while and be silent. Sometimes my mind wanders and nothing seems to happen when I go to Mass, but how do I know what God is doing in the times I am quiet and empty? I can’t pretend to understand what it’s all about, but in accepting the ashes I acknowledged that my own efforts aren’t enough. I didn’t create myself and ultimately, as a friend of mine once said to me, we’re not the ones in charge. The smudge of ashes on my forehead was a reminder that I need to make space for God.

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