Allison Westerhoff is an ELCA missionary in South Africa. Originally published Feb. 19, 2015, on her blog, “Little Ginger Big World.” Republished with the permission of the author.
Yesterday, the Lutheran Communion in Southern Africa observed Ash Wednesday in the midst of an HIV and AIDS workshop at a nearby venue in Johannesburg. Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent is a time of the church year that I have come to love more than the rest. Every year I am reminded that I am accepted into the family of Christ through my baptism, and the dark cross on my forehead may feel temporary and light but it ties me to millions of brothers and sisters around the world.
Each year, I have an internal debate about if I should wipe the ashes from my forehead after the service. I kept thinking, “People who are not Christian will give me weird looks, and what if they judge me? I have a meeting after this with people outside of the church, what will they think? But I just heard Scripture reading after Scripture reading about not hiding my faith and to not be ashamed of it.”
While I was studying at California Lutheran University, I went to three different imposition of ashes throughout the day because I loved the services so much. I was comforted by the many other students, staff and faculty around campus that bore the same cross on their forehead. But now, leaving the ashes on would be much more of a statement than it was last year.
I held off from rubbing my forehead and preserved the ashen reminder of my faith for the rest of the day. I went to the store and the checker asked me if I knew I had dirt on my forehead. I blushed and sputtered out that it’s because it’s Ash Wednesday, a Christian holy day, and that I do know I have it on my forehead. The rest of the day, I did not see anyone else outside of our office with their ashen crosses. In a country where as soon as I begin to speak people know I am not from South Africa and I already struggle to find my place, I did not mind this extra feeling of self-consciousness. I would forget it was on my forehead and walked around without a second thought.
I find comfort in the tradition and feel connected to the global church even more so now as I observe it in South Africa. But also, it forces me to make a decision about the imposition of my faith. This beautiful tradition turns into a public declaration of what I believe.
I strongly believe that words are important but that actions are what really matter in the end. I can write and speak about my faith all I want, but unless I take action – unless I truly do something, I am no better than those who are silent. In the world of social justice, awareness is important, but advocacy is key. Both can be achieved through communication of words, but what really sways people is communication through actions.
So, I let the ashes impose on my face. Others took note; some may have misunderstood what the ashes were and just thought I had terrible hygiene, or some may not have even cared. But this small cross on my forehead was not about them. It was about my faith and what actions I am willing to take to affirm my beliefs. This imposition will not solve injustice, hunger or war, but it will fuel my faith to be bolder and more outward. I will have more courage to stand out from the crowd, to speak up, and to love humbly toward everyone because, after the cross is wiped away, the mark of Christ remains on my life.