1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
As I have been preparing with you for Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, a memory came to me. I was a child smudged at our congregation’s Ash Wednesday service. I remember looking at the smudge on my forehead that night and trying to protect it so that it would not be erased. The next day I was delighted when it was still there; a bit faded but still an ashen cross for all to see. My mother asked me if I was going to wash my face that morning. I proudly announced that I wanted to wear the cross on my forehead as long as I could.
At school that day a friend said to me as she saw the remnant of Ash Wednesday on my forehead, “I didn’t know you were Catholic,” to which I readily responded with pride, “I’m not Catholic, I’m Methodist!” The exchange left us both perplexed and curious. Did Catholics and Methodists have some things in common? We learned that we did, but having grown up in a home that considered Catholics, persons to be respected but not quite saved, I began to wonder what it meant to be a Christian.
Many Ash Wednesdays have now come and gone, but the question of what it means to be a Christian lingers. I believe it is the fundamental question of the Lenten season that Ash Wednesday inaugurates. Who are we?
The ashes that will mark us this day are a reminder that we are finite beings; we are dust and to dust we will return. Not a single one of us will escape. We will all be but ashes someday. What matters most, however, is who we will be in the in-between time.
Psalm 51 holds up a mirror that we might want to look into to see who we are in this in-between time. It is a psalm of King David; his lament after the prophet Nathan pointed out to him that his adultery with Bathsheba was unacceptable to the Lord our God. We may not have committed adultery, but have we been true to God’s faithful love for us? Are we without sin?
Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are but dust and the Lenten journey ahead provides us with the opportunity to examine who we are in this life that will eventually return to dust. The disciplines of prayer, fasting, the study of scripture, and intentional introspection can lead us by the guidance of the Holy Spirit to who we are called to be as persons of Christian faith, helping us to see what blocks the way to our personhood as true Christians.
The exchange with my Catholic schoolmate, left me wondering who I was. Was I a prideful and arrogant person? Was this the person Jesus would have me be? As a child I did not fully understand how I was to be in relationship with that Catholic schoolmate, but even then, I could feel in my heart that being prideful and arrogant toward her was not consistent with who I was called to be as a follower of Jesus.
When I arrived home from school that day my mother noticed my troubled spirit. I shared with her what I had experienced. Patiently she told me that we were all beloved children of God, and if God loved us all then we should be persons who love all others as well. Not always an easy task, but an identity definer for sure.
In the 51st Psalm King David cries out for mercy, for the wiping away of his wrongdoings, for God’s great compassion, to be made clean of his guilt, to be purified of his sin. He wanted to be freed from his wrongdoings, the evil within him that just kept popping up right before him at every turn. King David longed to be clean and for the sound of joy, the very joy of his salvation, to return to his life. He knew that he needed to be who God had called him to be – one who loves God and loves all others. Such a love requires a pure heart and thus the mighty help of our merciful God.
After my conversation with my mother I went and washed my face. She had taught me that who I was called to be as a disciple of Jesus Christ was not best seen through a smudge of oily dust on my forehead, but through the actions of a clean heart.
Blessed Ash Wednesday to all of you. May God grant us clean hearts and the joy of our salvation. You are in my prayers and I covet your prayers for me.
Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño