On Feb. 27, 2004, I wrote a column in the Sentinel titled, “What’s on your forehead?” This article was about a trip to Jacksonville State University two days earlier. I was the sports editor at the Sentinel and had attended Ash Wednesday service at St. Jude Catholic Church earlier that day.
I typically go in the evening; however, this day was unique. I had a full schedule of games at JSU due to several Jackson County teams competing in the regional playoffs. This day was a new experience for me, giving me an entirely new meaning to the reason for the symbolism of the ashes.
I realized how unknown the significance of Ash Wednesday actually was in Alabama. I returned to work after attending service and quickly found myself the center of attention. Co-workers were confused as to what exactly was on my forehead. It was ashes, placed on my forehead in the shape of a cross.
So what is Ash Wednesday and why have ashes placed on a person’s forehead?
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Lenton season. It marks the start of a 40-day fasting ritual that asks us to perform a sacrifice. It is a reminder that from dust we are created and to dust we shall return. The idea is to duplicate humility, have us do penance for our sins and convert our hearts to the Lord.
While I was searching the coliseum at Jacksonville 15 years ago for any others who had received ashes like myself, I quickly found I was no longer just a guy walking around with a camera. Instead, I was quickly and secretly stared at by many, asking one another, "what is that on his forehead?" It was as if people were afraid to ask.
Throughout the day I experienced humility. I wasn’t ashamed of my faith, nor who I am, but was humiliated to have been stared at by hundreds of people. The worst part of it was wondering what they were thinking.
In a way the ashes mark a person as a sinner, and having the courage to withstand the humiliation makes us a better person. Just as confessing our sins to a priest make a person endure humiliation, it also cleanses the soul.
As the day neared its end, I became more comfortable about having the ashes on my forehead and there came a time when I forgot the ashes were even there in the beginning.
While I was also impressed that someone knew of the tradition after scores of people had asked, I also came to the realization that many people in this area do not understand the meaning, nor the significance of Ash Wednesday. Perhaps, 15 years later more understand the significance.
As Ash Wednesday will be here in the coming days, I’ll prepare myself for the random stares and comments of, “Boy, do you know you have a burnt cross on your head?” I will gladly receive my ashes and wear them with humiliation.