Its ‘dirt on the face’ day!

That’s how I heard Ash Wednesday described (courtesy of Lucy Gledhill’s nephews) this morning – ‘dirt on the face’ day.

I think it is a very appropriate description!

In case you are wondering what I am talking about, Ash Wednesday is the day that marks the beginning of Lent, the period of reflection on Jesus’ giving his life for us, in the lead-up to Easter. And in the Catholic church (and Anglican and Presbyterian and some others) there are special Ash Wednesday services where attendees receive ash on their foreheads accompanied by the words, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” or, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (These ashes are sometimes made by burning the palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday Service which I think is a very cool way of circling back year after year to where the story begins!)

But I am always reminded by Ash Wednesday of one of my greatest faux pas.

In my 20’s I was working for an aid and development program of the National Council of Churches and Australian Catholic Relief (now Caritas Australia) and I was invited to speak at a Catholic High School, somewhere in Sydney’s south, and it happened to be Ash Wednesday. Not that that had registered in my ‘brought up as a Baptist’ brain!

At the school, the RE teacher welcomed me and walked me through the courtyards, through groups of students, to the classroom where I’d be presenting and I, very stupidly, asked, “Why does everyone have dirty marks on their faces?” 

It was Ash Wednesday, the teacher explained, ‘dirt on the face day’. But it was definitely ‘dirt (and egg) on the face’ day for me!

But that is what Ash Wednesday is! It is a day of realising, of acknowledging that we, as human beings, are human; that we are frail and that we fail. It is, Sara Miles in her book City of God says “The most honest of days“; the day we front up to God and admit that we have dirt on our faces and need help.

It is so so hard to do, isn’t it? To admit we have failed and need help? Every self-protection mechanism in our body screams at us, “Don’t do it! Don’t show weakness. Don’t admit you don’t know what to do. Don’t reveal you’re not as strong as people think you are. The moment you let your guard down people will attack. Or if not attack, they’ll certainly think less of you.”

I can think of several significant ‘dirt on the face’ days in my life. When Aron and I acknowledged we loved each other, but had problems our marriage wouldn’t survive and needed marriage counselling. When I rang Tresillian because I’d fallen asleep at the wheel with two toddlers in back of the car to ask for help with sleep routines. When, a couple of years ago, stress at work caused me to experience depression and I needed counselling and psychological help.

Perhaps there’s also another one. When I, as a rather cocky eight-year-old, thought I had my faith, my salvation, sorted – “I’m good! Thank you very much!” – and had to acknowledge to God that I had ‘dirt on my face’ and needed help – and that the only one who could help me was God. That’s an experience that has been repeated many, many times in my life. You could say daily! 

And yet those moments, those most honest of days, when I admitted I needed help, that I needed God’s salvation, were also days of resurrection.

May today be your most honest of days. May today be your day of resurrection.

Grace and peace,


 Lenten Prayer

From Saint Ephraim of Syria (4th century):

O Lord and Master of my life,
take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk,
but grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King,
grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother,
for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen

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