I’ve been to Ash Wednesday mass many times, and I didn’t expect to be particularly moved at yesterday’s service. For one thing, it was my first time bringing John Paul, which I expected would be interesting (code word for crazy, hectic, and generally insane), given the extra time needed for everyone to receive ashes and receive the Eucharist. And for another, I was tired and a little cranky when we arrived at church, and I knew it was going to be a struggle to concentrate during the homily and really, meaningfully, admit my sin to God, let alone stay patient as John Paul strived to crawl under the pews and chew on hymnal books.
Just as I expected, it was a mass to remember. Since we were in a old-fashioned church there was no cry room or hallway space to let John Paul roam free. Instead, we found ourselves squeezed into the last pew of a church that was filled to the brim with fairly serious looking Catholics. John Paul’s incessant, gleeful “Da!” was met with more than one weary glance, and he attempted to pull the hair of more than one sweet little old lady sitting in front of us. The real excitement came when, in the few silent moments after the Priest gave the homily, John Paul wriggled out of my arms and flung himself underneath the pew in front of us, banging his elbow on the ground and his head on the pew seat above him. Needless to say, he did not respond well, or quietly for that matter, to the unexpected hardness of the concrete floor or wooden pew seat.
Yet, despite being overwhelmed by John Paul’s antics during mass, I experienced a moment so small, yet so meaningful that it took my breath away. I almost let my embarrassment and anxiety overwhelm me so greatly that began to just go through the motions, but thank goodness I forced my mind to slow down and focus as John Paul and I neared the front of the line and it was finally our turn to receive our ashes, to receive the mark of our sin and repentance.
Though I knew John Paul and all people, whether babies or elderly, whether confirmed Catholic or not, were eligible to receive ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday, I was not prepared for how I would actually feel seeing the Priest mark John Paul’s sweet, small forehead with ashes in the sign of the cross, the symbol of hope and eternal life. Nor was I prepared for how I would feel hearing him say the words God once spoke to Adam, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” to my tiny son, not even a year old, reminding him that even he, still so new to life, will someday die and return to dust.
Seeing that cross and hearing those words made my heart skip a beat, as if I had been slapped in the face with a reality check, the most important reality check of all: we have one life, we have been given one chance. Will we squander away our time chasing meaningless things, things that like our bodies will someday return to dust and mean nothing? Or will we spend our time well, always striving to find the goodness and blessed in our lives, always moving closer to our Savior, the only One who can take our bodies of dust and renew them, restore them, and rebuild them into eternal life? Will we chase the only thing that ultimately matters, that is, will we chase Love?