Practice@People's: Ash Wednesday
Makeup and Ashes
Pastor Kate Sweet
This month, our Practice@People's blog conveniently falls on Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the Christian Church season of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday.
Back in 2013, just after I graduated from Seminary, I spent some time writing in a blog. This blog chronicled the "sabbatical" time I took for a few months before beginning my training as a hospital chaplain. I'd like to share with you the reflection I wrote five years ago in response to my experience of Ash Wednesday.
“Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
On Wednesday, I wore no makeup. For some this might not be particularly remarkable, but the truth is that I haven’t gone out into the world (other than to the gym or camping) without at least a hint of concealer in probably 13 years. Putting on makeup is something that I do almost automatically by now, usually without giving it a second thought.
Lent began on Wednesday. For many Christians throughout the world, Lent is a time of fasting—we give something up in order to gain deeper insight into the unacknowledged reality of our lives. Sometimes people take up a new habit for the 40 days of Lent, such as prayer or increased charitable giving. In any case, our Lenten devotions are meant to shake up our normal routines such that we are able to see ourselves and God in a more truthful way.
So, as I was preparing for the day, Lent was on my mind. I thought about how I wanted to attend an Ash Wednesday service in the evening, what I might expect there, and what I was hoping to experience. As I reached for my concealer, I had a sudden thought: on the day when I am meant to remember the depth of my humanity (down to the fact that I will one day return to dust!) did I really want to head out into the world concealing my real face? My real, human face?
After a moment of internal struggle, I put that little beige tube down and decided not to wear any makeup at all, just to give it a try.
I’d like to say I marched confidently out the door without any second thought and felt great the rest of the day. But this wasn’t so.
I felt tired. I wondered what people thought when they looked at me. I suddenly noticed how many other women around me were wearing makeup. Throughout the day, I grew more and more conscious of how much this act of showing my “real face” left me feeling vulnerable, exposed, and frankly, not myself. I felt discouraged by my inability to feel confident without the makeup. For all of the self confidence I do have, I was suddenly aware of a gaping hole, a blind spot in my self-understanding.
By the grace of God, the Ash Wednesday service at St. Paul’s Episcopal church provided space for me to rest into my vulnerability. The sermon invited me to reflect on what I had experienced, setting off waves upon waves of deep reverberations. In the sermon we were reminded what the ashes signify, and those words prompted me to pray:
Ashes are a sign of mourning.
I mourn my addiction to perfection and hiding. I mourn my fear of vulnerability. I mourn the false standards of “beauty” and “womanhood” that I have bought into. I mourn the shame that I feel.
Ashes are a sign of repentance.
I choose to turn in vulnerability toward God instead of toward the praise of others. I choose to turn inward to discover what it is that still binds me. I choose to turn toward the truth of grace, my acceptance and identity in Christ.
Ashes are a sign of protest.
I will stand against the voices that tell us our faces are not good enough as they are, that we need to hide our vulnerable selves. I will stand against the cultural impulse to degrade and dishonor our bodies. I will stand with all those who find themselves shamed and broken by dehumanizing standards and expectations.
This is the movement that Lent invites: a movement into the deepest parts of our humanity.
These are the parts of us, and our life together, that are filled with death. This death draws our tears and wrenches our hearts. In our mourning, we are invited into repentance, a turning away from the ways of death and toward the Life of God. And as we accept forgiveness, we are freed in Christ to follow the way of grace, love, and ultimately Resurrection for ourselves and the world around us.
In my heart that night I offered up my discouragement and shame for being so highly affected by one day without makeup. In that place, as the Rector with her fierce tenderness marked me with ashes and invited us all to receive at the Table in the act of Eucharist, I felt honestly known, accepted, and filled with love.
So will I be giving up makeup entirely for Lent? I struggled with the thought that this was something that I “should” do, but in the end I decided it would be more graceful and honoring to myself to ease into this newfound area of rawness and vulnerability. I have to admit that I’m not quite at a place where I’m brave enough to chuck out makeup entirely. Plus, I like wearing it!
But wearing makeup is now a conscious act instead of an unconscious one. After my experienced of the makeup-free Ash Wednesday, it’s going to be hard not to be more aware. I will think more carefully about when and why I am wearing it, and I am going to try to go more days without it—just to see how it feels, to reflect on what it brings up for me.
I left the sanctuary that night with absolutely nothing but tears and ashes on my face. I felt solidarity with the millions of other Christians who were also facing the world with ashes, ashes that are the sign of mourning, repentance, and protest. So together we proclaim with gratitude,
“Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
Post originally published February 15, 2013.