I overheard an awkward sentence on my way to Ash Wednesday Mass. With playful humor and sincere determination, a girl said to her friend, “I gotta get to church today, get my ashes and figure out what the f*** I’m giving up for Lent.”
I was startled and taken aback, but I couldn’t help but smile. It was refreshing to hear faith being spoken of so freely. And, however deeply buried beneath the surface, her comment expressed my own feelings. I walked to church carrying a nervous and slightly shameful recognition that there are things in my life I need to give up and do penance for. She reassured me, however, this was normal. I was not alone.
With her blunt pronouncement, my Lent had begun. Ready or not, Ash Wednesday comes like the first day of school. Choose a penance like you choose a pencil. I continued toward church hoping for a full house. If I am doing Lent, I thought, I’m not doing it alone. And thus, surrounded by others, I was ushered into the shame and the liberation of Lent.
I walk into church behind an elderly man, one who has passed through this door hundreds of times. Immediately, we are warmed and welcomed by the noonday light breaking through stained glass. I pass a line of young and old, black and white, rich and poor, men and women who await Reconciliation. No one thinks twice at people lining up to confess the gossip they’ve partaken of, the people they’ve used, the substance and money abuse. It’s just part of the routine.
I take my seat behind some nuns and next to a Jesuit. I watch folks coming in work clothes, here on their lunch hour, elderly couples and widows who come everyday and some who found it important enough to inconvenience someone for a ride today. They intermingle with the hundreds of college students pouring in.
Then my heart is arrested by the sight of a church lady in a purple sweater setting up for Mass. My eyes water as she reminds me of every church lady wearing a purple sweater that I have seen on every Ash Wednesday of my life. I’ve never been here for Lent, but I am struck by the familiarity of that purple sweater, in this church, with this smell, and these songs, surrounded by these people, on this day. Nothing could feel more right.
I am moved by the familiarity but confused by the comfort. We willingly came here today to be looked at in the face and told: you are dust, you have failed, you’re a sinner. How could this feel right? Why is the church so full today?
There is something I find at Mass on Ash Wednesday that I don’t find elsewhere. Nowhere else do I step in line with old ladies in purple sweaters, fellow students, elderly widows, the nuns, the homeless, the workers on lunch hour, the priests, and the University president to face our shame, imperfections, and our transgressions, together.
In Lent, I am reminded that Church is a safe space for sinners. Unlike anywhere else, I come here willingly to be reminded of my failure and need for repentance. But I also come here, surrounded by so many others, to be told that failure and the need for repentance is normal. Far from self-improvement or self-empowerment, here I am reminded that the self is powerless, needy, and dependent.
That truth sets me free, because it’s hard to examine my life and look at the ways I have hurt people. It’s uncomfortable to confront my selfishness, or my complacency in a culture of sexism, racism, and consumerism. It is inconvenient to feel shame for my waste and my greed and my pride. It can be annoying to give things up.
If it weren’t for Church, I probably wouldn’t do it. Church, I guess, isn’t a place I come to. It is a place I follow others to. It is not a place where I do anything, but a place where we, a sea of sinners, sit together in a home created uniquely for us.
Some have come here for the 60th, 70th, 80th year in a row, and that reassures me. Some have left work to be here, and that encourages me. Some gave up study time to be here. Others needed help into a car and up these stairs to be here. Some have a sweater they wear especially for this day. And by their witness, I know something good is here. I am liberated to believe like Fr. John Kavanaugh SJ that, “It is no shame to be a frail and contingent human being. In fact, it is priceless to be so. It is, necessarily, to be loved into existence.”
So in Lent, I do give something up. I happily give up the dreadful task of relying on myself. In doing so, I find strength for the rest of Lent and for life.