It was really strange yesterday, walking around the city on Ash Wednesday and not seeing anyone with ashes on their foreheads.
Not that Ash Wednesdays in NYC are usually a carnival of soot-forehead’ed Christians, but more people come out of the woodwork that you’d think, and it’s always a nice reminder that, as a Christian in this crazy world (and even crazier city)…you’re not alone.
But yesterday…there was no one. It was just your typical day in Covid-strained New York.
Ash Wednesday, aside from its religious significance: marking the beginning of Lent when we partake in penance leading up to Easter, also holds an additional significance for me: it marks the onset of my eating disorder.
Yes, I developed anorexia after “giving up” all sweets for Lent during my sophomore year of high school. Sure, there were a lot of other factors, including digestive pain from Ulcerative Colitis, debilitating perfectionism and a deep seeded wound that my worth was performance based and I had to be perfect to be loved. But I can really go back and pin point the allure of weight loss to Lent, when the voice of the eating disorder really took residence in my mind.
So, Ash Wednesday has always been a grave reminder of the biggest regret and largest source of shame in my life. Something that I have come to terms with, and yet still can haunt me from time to time with guilt, with sorrow, with shame.
Yesterday, I watched Father Mike’s Ash Wednesday Mass on YouTube, and he said something that resonated with me so much, I just needed to share it.
“(Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.) It’s beautiful: Here’s ashes. Here’s the remnants of a life that’s been burned up. Here’s the remnants of a life I no longer want to cling to. Here’s a sign of repentance. I want to embrace, even the difficulties of life, because I want to embrace God. The Lord is calling me not to run away or escape, but to return. Embrace them, and in doing so, also embrace Him.”
He spoke those words, and I just could feel my heart swell inside. I felt as though he was speaking to me.
After Mass, knowing that I wanted to write about this tonight, I did a little more research on the ashes themselves. And the ashes are made from the burned palms of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday, was of course, the day when Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey, right before the Last Supper and His Passion. The people placed palms in front of Jesus, lining His pathway into the city.
And ultimately, they were paving the way for Him to the Cross.
How fitting then, that those same palms are used for the ashes of repentance on Ash Wednesday.
You see, one of the biggest “mountain top God moments” I’ve ever had was at inpatient when I realized that my eating disorder was on the Cross. I finally understood that my anorexia was one of the nails in Jesus’ hands, and He died on the Cross to forgive and redeem me from it.
He took my sin – my eating disorder – upon Himself. It’s why He went to the Cross. You could say that my eating disorder was one of the palms I placed before Him, paving His way to Calvary.
And today, that sin – that palm branch – is literally burned into ashes and placed on my forehead. Remnants of my past that have been burned up.
The beautiful thing about God is that, even though we all have our own source of pain/shame/guilt/regret, God does not see us that way. We may — we may view ourselves through a lens where that’s all we see when we look in the mirror. I know I did. But God only sees us with eyes of love.
He’s taken those things and burned them up. Burned them into ashes, used to remind us that He’s redeemed our repentant hearts.
It really is the greatest love story of all.
So this Lent, though I may not be able to physically wear the ashes on my forehead, I am strengthened by what they truly mean. I am humbled by the fact that that past life has been burned up.
So perhaps, Ash Wednesday is now no longer a reminder of the shame in my past, but rather a celebration of Christ’s victory in my life: that my past has been burned up, and forgiven.
I have been redeemed and reclaimed….as seen on the smudge on my forehead.
“This is what the Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.” Ez 37:5
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