Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday

When I was a little girl, my family and I would go to the church early in the morning before school and work and have crosses of ashes put on our foreheads. The rule was that they could not be wiped or washed off. They had to wear off over time, usually about 48 hours would remove all trace of them. Until then, I was an obvious "Catholic kid" in a school that was not predominantly Catholic, in a town that was fairly evenly split between (in RCC parlance) those who were Catholic and those who ...........were not. It didn't matter what faith or Christian denomination one was. In my family if one was not Roman Catholic one fell into that amorphous bundle of people we simply referred to as "non-Catholics." They were the other half of the world -- the other half of what one could be, in a world with only two choices in it -- Catholic or non-Catholic. So it was in the 1950's pre-Vatican II, ethnic, Roman Catholic, New England universe.

In some ways I loved Ash Wednesday. It was easy to tell at school over that 48 hour period who was and who was not Catholic like me. We would ask each other, with a special feeling of connection, "Whaddaya giving up for Lent?" That was the plan -- to give up something for Lent. And it was serious. Heaven help you if you defiantly violated that pledge. And if by accident you should forget and accidentally eat a piece of candy when you had given up sweets --well, a tempest of self-imposed guilt would ensue, and it would surely be confessed that Saturday in the confessional.

But there was something special in all of it. There was something that felt worth defending about being set apart in such a visible way. We were doing something "for God" -- or at least that is how it felt. We were giving something up, and we felt spiritually stronger for having done it -- and secretly proud of our discipline in the face of people who didn't have it. It was during Lent that I felt most connected to other Catholics, because of our willingness to wear the sign of our connection -- even if it was just a cross made from ashes for 48 hours.


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