The Mark of Courage: Taking Ashes for the First Time

By Lily Burana 2-18-2015 | Series:
Photo via Canticle Communications / RNS
Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer imposes ashes on a passerby. Photo via Canticle Communications / RNS

Lately, a particular quote has been wending its way around Facebook, popping up in the feeds of the most disparate names on my friends list. It appears written in feminine cursive script or blocky varsity letters or etched under a photo of leaping flames: “May the bridges I burn light the way.”

The words seem significant on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, when ministers mark a believer’s forehead with a sign of the cross — two simple finger strokes drawn as a reminder of the impermanence of this world and our own mortality. The imposition of ashes is often accompanied by words from Genesis 3:19: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Lent is the season of reflection, reevaluation, reconciliation, and — here’s a hundred dollar Christian word — repentance. For many, the word “repent” calls to mind a red-faced TV preacher banging a hammy fist on the podium, or a guy in a sandwich board, standing on a corner yelling through a bullhorn about the fires of hell and the threat of damnation. YOU MUST REPENT!

But repent means, in the most literal sense, to turn in a different direction. It is less about avoiding being struck down by God than embarking on our own particular course-correction.

In our own lives and hearts, the process of repentance bears little resemblance to the fire-and-brimstone beseeching of a cartoony televangelist or street preacher. For one thing, it’s usually a lot quieter.

Repentance is on my Lenten to-do list. I have my own list of things to give up, most habitual, but one that is purely internal. Along with diet soda, cursing, and constantly checking my cell phone while my baby daughter plays, I am surrendering my crippling self-centered fear.

I’ve never taken ashes before, because I didn’t want anyone to judge me for my beliefs. I didn’t want anyone to see. But this year will be different. For the first time, I will show up at church for services, step up to the pastor and present my forehead for the mark, kicking off what I hope will be 40-something days of greater courage. My dominant thought during this period of reflection will be something other than “What will everybody think?” What will I do with all that open brain-share? I can hardly process the possibilities.

I know that not everyone is going to get it. As I open up more and more about my return to Christianity, I can sense the fear, the hesitation. Already I’m fielding hints telegraphing anxiety that I’ve turned into some Scripture-hobbled cave-dweller eager to haul everyone back to the Dark Ages, or at least the 1950s.

The fact is, when you gin up the courage to change, not everyone likes it. One can’t count on applause as the given response to growth.

Paradoxically, in my effort to inhabit a bigger spiritual world, I may lose some folks along the way. There won’t be any raging conflagration or confrontation, no hateful words between us. Some bridges just burn themselves, it seems.

Ashes. As much as they signify our mortal limitation, they’re also an invitation — to reveal your most deeply held beliefs, to have a conversation about faith, to signify change, and I want to be part of it.

So on Wednesday, after the ashes are daubed on my forehead, I will take a deep breath and step outside, showing to the world, for the first time, the face of the faithful.

Ashes to ashes: As it begins, so it ends, but it’s the moments in between that really matter, how we tend that fire inside. There’s no time like the present, no day like Ash Wednesday.

So let’s turn in a different direction, shall we, and give up something limiting for Lent. Take your pick: Fear. Pessimism. Cynicism. Self-doubt. Self-consciousness. A different route is open to you if you only have to courage to choose it. All it takes is a spark of inspiration.

And should you find that your new road seems scary, let the bridges you burn light the way.

Lily Burana is the author of three books, including, “I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles.” Follow her on Twitter @lilyburana. Via RNS.

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