When I was walking back into my office building after receiving ashes at church, I realized that it was a bit ridiculous to be touching up my lip gloss when I’ve got a huge smudge of black dirt on my forehead.
The question of whether or not I should wash off my ashes immediately after receiving them has always been a sort of crisis of faith for me. I’m not (very) ashamed to walk around with ashes on my head all day, mostly because I can’t see my own forehead unless I’m looking into a mirror. But isn’t the whole concept a little showy? Just in the church service today the Gospel reading from Matthew was about not being ostentatious in our penitence, not walking around with pained expressions on our faces if we’re fasting, because our reward is in heaven, not in being perceived as “holy” by other people.
When I heard this reading, I remembered when I was in high school and we received T-shirts that said “I believe” on them at church. The concept was that students all over the nation would wear the shirt on the same day of the week as a declaration of faith. When the day came, I wore my shirt, and then I jumped all over one of my best friends for not wearing hers. I’m not sure WHY I jumped all over her, exactly. Maybe I was embarrassed to be wearing the (really ugly) shirt to school and was counting on some camaraderie. Or maybe I just had a serious attitude problem. Or both, which is likely, since I was sixteen. Either way, I was ashamed not too soon after and still am ashamed now by the way I acted.
I also thought about when I was in college and students made a big ordeal about bowing their heads to pray before meals in the cafeteria. Since I went to a private Christian school, I was inundated with chapel and praise and prayer and faith and church and Christianity and God pretty much non-stop. Really, it was my decision to attend a Christian college, but having Christ shoved down one’s throat when one is not exactly in the mood for it can make one a little jaded. But bowing one’s head to pray is little unnecessary, yes? I mean, we don’t HAVE to bow our heads and close our eyes to talk to God. It’s just a way of saying, “LOOK AT ME! I AM PRAYING! BEFORE I EAT!” So I made the decision to pray before every meal, but with my eyes open and my head straight up. Maybe looking out the window. Maybe even while someone engages me in conversation. God doesn’t mind it when we multi-task.
But now I see that judging those who prayed before meals is just as bad as judging my friend who didn’t wear her shirt. Who cares if someone needs to bow their head and close their eyes to commune with God? And who even cares if someone’s doing it just for show? If that’s that person’s particular brand of Christianity, then I should be happy that they’ve found something that works for them. Just as happy as I am that I’ve found the Episcopal Church.
So after I received my ashes today at lunch, I was faced with a decision. Do I keep them on all day in remembrance that I am dust, and to dust I shall return? Or do I wash them off because I don’t want anyone to think I’m some sort of holier than thou person who goes to church on her lunch break and then walks around all day with the proof on her forehead?
In the end, I decided to leave my ashes on but clean them up a little bit, making it a bit more of a cross and a bit less of a smudgy mess. Because, as it turns out, that’s my particular brand of Christianity.