In my religious tradition, today is a holy day — it is Ash Wednesday. Even if you aren’t a practicing Christian, you no doubt have seen people walking around with a smudge on their foreheads. Ash Wednesday is the first day of the holy season of Lent, which is the forty days plus Sundays before Easter. Ash Wednesday begins a time of self-reflection and service.
The ashes are a reminder to us that we are human-that our days are numbered. The ashes remind us that sometimes we have failed to be good humans and yet we have a chance to do better each and every day. In reality, it’s not about the ashes. It is about the self-reflection and mindfulness that we practice.
These practices are something we can all hold in common. It is good for us to take time to quiet ourselves each day. It is good for us to let something go so that something new may grow in us. It is good for us to think about the needs of others and try to help them. It is good for us to realize that we are not the center of the universe.
A traditional reading for Ash Wednesday from the book of the prophet Joel talks about, “rending your hearts and not your clothing.” It was a common practice in Biblical times that as one reflected on one’s sins to tear one’s clothes. It was an outward sign of what was going on inside of a person. Joel reminds us that It’s not about what’s happening on the outside of us, but what is happening on the inside of us. It’s about what is happening in our hearts. It’s about breaking open our hearts so that there is more room for love to come in.
In that way, the practices associated with Ash Wednesday and Lent are universal. It’s about reflecting on how you will spend the gift of each of our days. Will you spend time in prayer or practicing mindfulness? Will you see the humanity of those in need and do something to help them? Will you make a big deal about giving up chocolate, or will you quietly let something go knowing that in some small way you are making room for something new?
This spring, break your heart open.