Lent begins with an ending. On Ash Wednesday our foreheads are smudged with ashes at church. We hear the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Dust? Us? That can’t be good. Our finite days are literally rubbed into our faces, and we are forced to acknowledge our eventual separation from the lives and people we know.
A lector reads Psalm 51 on Ash Wednesday, and we listen to the psalmist cry out to God: “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me” (11). The words uncover our even deeper fear that we will not only be separated from our lives but from God.
But Lent also begins with a promise. The ashes on our forehead are formed into the shape of a cross, reminding us of the beginning beyond all endings. In admitting our finitude and voicing our devotion to the one who is eternal on Ash Wednesday, we entrust the season to all three parts of the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Lent’s challenge of impending separation and promise of enduring love remind me of a parting ritual we practiced with our daughters: “Remember God loves you, and so do I.” I began to say those words when they were just old enough to be away from me at the baby sitter or preschool. Each time I said these words, I marked their soft foreheads with a cross and sealed the ritual with a little kiss.
The simple words and gestures served many purposes. For example, the message of love soothed me, as well as my daughters. Parting is indeed such sweet sorrow.
This ritual also offered us a natural opportunity to name and proclaim our faith during our everyday lives. God is right here, we reassured one another, loving us at the hardest times. Somehow God accompanies each of us to the lives to which we’ve been called and ties us together with spiritual bonds still present when we are apart.
As our daughters grew older, our goodbye ritual morphed into more age-appropriate versions. They began to love marking my forehead with a cross and saying the words I taught them. Then they grew to be teenagers, and statements of faith weren’t as easily shared in carpools. We adapted by dashing quick air crosses and blowing kisses before they exited the car each morning. Now our college separations are longer, and the ritual serves as a way to place our tears in the context and comfort of our faith.
Lent begins with an ending and a promise. We who come together and part with such regularity are invited to surrender to the dusty goodbyes of our lives and the deeply etched cross of God’s eternal life, knowing we’ll be OK.