Communal ashes: finding God in our lament this Lenten season

Photo by Sabine van Straaten

I was 16 years old the first time ashes were smeared on my forehead. It was a practice I had not grown up with and did not know much about.

I was new at this particular youth group, attending a regular Wednesday night program. That night I walked up to the pastor and heard, “From ashes you come; to ashes you will return.” At the end of youth group, I walked back towards the car to meet my parents with a confused look on my face. They asked why ashes were on my forehead, and I said all I could think to say at that moment: “I’m going to die someday.”

They were not thrilled.

The weeks following that first conversation about Lent are moments I return to often. My questions kept pouring out during dinners and car rides, all revolving around the finitude of life. During one of these conversations, my mother took my hands and said, “Mija, la vida es corta. Asi que mientras que vivimos, nunca tenemos que dejar en cuenta a quien servimos y con quien lo hacemos.” (Daughter, life is short. So, while we live, we can never forget who we serve and who we serve with.)

My mother was right. Ash Wednesday catapulted in me the desire to ask questions about death, life, and everything in between. It was the first time when the pain, sorrow, and grief I had experienced took a front seat in my life. Jesus went from being the person who made me feel guilty about having dirty thoughts to the one who entered my reality and refused to shy away from the deep pain I saw in my community.

I have had the great privilege of being raised and formed by the immigrant Latina church. For all the assets and strengths this expression of church possesses, my experience also gave me a front-row seat to the unjust and inhumane systems that continue to oppress people today. Particularly people whom we have labeled as the other.

Ash Wednesday was the first time I was able to recognize just how many ashes my community had to navigate on a daily basis.

The invitation of Ash Wednesday

Over and over again in our research at FYI, young people remind us that it is not doubt that is toxic to faith, but silence.

That the church has not always been the safest place for victims of an array of abuse, marginalization, or injustice to seek refuge.

That sometimes we opt for death tactics rather than life-giving strategies.

Ash Wednesday is an invitation to face the darkness of our world and be reminded of who we serve and with whom we serve. It is a time to remember to whom we are allegiant, do an inventory of pain and sorrow in our local communities, and enter into a season of facing these realities.

Ash Wednesday is an invitation to face the darkness of our world and be reminded of who we serve and with whom we serve. (tweet that)

Our response to grief and pain can sometimes be to escape them or to pretend they do not exist. Neither of these approaches ever make the pain go away. Instead they ferment it. We cannot forget that there is no Easter without Lent, no Sunday without Friday. It is in fact facing the ashes that we move toward the cross and, eventually, resurrection.

This year during Lent, I encourage you to take an inventory of pain and grief in your local community. Invite your students to name the ashes that plague the streets, systems, leadership, and even the church. Then journey together to spend 40 days listening. Listening to the ways we may have shifted our allegiance to other competing values, the ways we have forgotten those who surround us, and how we can align with what God is doing in our neighborhoods.

Ten years have gone by since that first time ashes met my forehead. Since then, I have been able to see my immigrant Latina church context more clearly, and to hold the tension of both the injustice and the resilience that exist. The oppressive systems are real, but the church perseveres with an overwhelming resolve that those systems do not define us; they cannot take away the imago dei in us. Destructive words may generalize and stereotype our cultures, but meanwhile vibrant worship invokes a God who is at work.

Life and death.

God and others.

Lament and repentance.

Grace and redemption.

All tied up together in the remnants of palm branches mixed with oil.


Additional Resources for Lent:

Lent ideas for your youth ministry

Holy Week reflections on loss