During Ash Wednesday worship last night, a memory fueled my appreciation for this holy day. But it’s not the kind of memory you might expect.
It happened 15 years ago, but I remember it vividly. The class was “Ecological Psychology” — one of the many pithy, arduous courses I took to earn my Ph.D. from Indiana University. Grinding through Year Three, I was spent.
Living on coffee and Cheez-Its, my brain seemed only to hold — and care about — information that would help me survive and succeed. And so, on that cool March evening when we gathered for class, the idea that anyone else there actually had a life was the furthest thing from my mind.
When Laurie (name changed) sat down, I saw a strange smudge on her forehead. It looked like perhaps she had gotten her face dirty somehow and didn’t realize it. Or, maybe it was a bruise from an injury. It was hard to tell. But hey, I thought I’d better inquire about it out of concern.
“What happened to your forehead?” I asked.
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh no…no, you didn’t, Carrie. Please say you didn’t.”
But I did.
Laurie’s eyes widened in an expression that seemed to be a hybrid of shock and irritation. “It’s Ash Wednesday!” she chided.
Feeling a wave of confusion and embarrassment wash over me, I had to think fast. “Oh! Of course. I’m sorry, Laurie — I’ve been so stressed out lately that I forgot what day it is.”
Her face softened a little, but not a lot. She looked at me differently after that night.
What I had done was bad enough, but the reason behind it was even worse. You see, although it might have seemed like I was just a stressed out, distracted graduate student, the truth went much deeper:
I had no idea what Ash Wednesday was.
Sure, I had seen it on the calendar. I had some vague notion that it was related to Easter somehow. But no one had ever explained it to me, I had never been exposed to it, and — regrettably — I had never asked. Keep in mind, I was 28 years old when this happened.
You don’t know what you don’t know. I have ached over this truth ever since discovering Christ because if I had known what I didn’t know, I surely would have asked. But we can’t agonize over how things could have been.
Looking back, graduate school was a blinding experience because I lived within an academic culture that taught that one’s significance was found in the prestige that came from earning a Ph.D. at a top research university, presenting among esteemed colleagues in the field, and publishing scientific articles in impressive journals.
In other words, we were taught to find our self-worth through our professional accomplishments and the approval of others who were deemed “important.”
Admittedly, I was seduced by this idea and, for awhile, I participated in it. And so I never sought to find out what I didn’t know about Christ.
No wonder I never asked about Ash Wednesday. I hadn’t a clue that the smudge I saw was a cross, or that the truth it represented was about repentance and renewal.
Now, through a great deal of God-searching (as opposed to soul-searching, which seems to focus too much on the self and not enough on our Creator), I’ve discovered that my significance doesn’t come from worldly things like what’s on my resume or who approves of me according to their own definitions of success.
Instead, my significance comes from the truth that God loves me, that I am His child, and that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)
Knowing this has made all the difference. It has transformed my life and continues to do so every day.
And so, as a late bloomer, I participated in Ash Wednesday worship with the memory of Laurie close by. I smiled when I realized that perhaps we both had strange smudges on our foreheads last night.
If I ever see her again, I will tell her that ashes on my forehead feel a lot nicer than egg on my face.
I have a feeling that she would smile too.