Today, at Catholic schools across the country, priests and lay ministers will intentionally smudge students with ashes and tell them one of two things:
Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Sin and mortality are certainly somber subjects to address with children. To make matters even more intense, when the priest or lay minister says these things to students today, they will do it one-by-one, looking each student in the eye, smearing one forehead at a time. There’s no refuge in generalities on Ash Wednesday; the messages of this liturgy come at each of us individually, adults and children alike, and smack in the middle of our foreheads.
Yet it is through such encounters with these uncomfortable subjects that Catholic schools can provide our students a timely, fresh approach to two things the world could use more of right now: truth and hope.
To sit for a moment with the truth of how we have harmed others and let ourselves down is genuinely uncomfortable. It is so much easier to focus on other people’s shortcomings; social media platforms have turned quips about others’ failings into a major source of modern entertainment. In such a culture of self-righteousness, it can be jarring to turn the spotlight of our attention away from others’ failings to our own.
But in Lent, we don’t stop with just considering our faults.
There is another truth embedded in the phrase “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel,”—the truth of the Gospel, or the good news, that Jesus loves us. Fully aware that we have sinned, God still loves us and believes in us. And if we really turn ourselves toward that love—and help our students do that too—then cannot help but turn away from sin.
As Catholic schools, then, our faith gives us a rich platform from which to help our students encounter both difficult truths and significant hope. We don’t have to be stuck as we are. When Catholics are reminded that we are dust, it is humbling, but also hopeful: even as dust, we are capable of joy and good. This winter, a student at Immaculate Conception reminded us of this: Josiah, one of the fifth graders who led the school in a reflection on what it means to be the light of the world, was so eager to make sure the whole school could see that he stretched on his tiptoes:
(That’s Josiah with the G). To hope and to become the light of the world, as Josiah demonstrates, involves stretching ourselves.
It is that daring hope that animates Pope Francis’s worldwide invitation to pray and fast today for peace in Ukraine. The truth of sin is on full display in such world events, and we can only shield our children from it imperfectly. But we can give them opportunities to act in solidarity with others’ suffering, and to practice the transcendent hope with which Christians have overcome darkness for two thousand years.
That’s why we prize the chance Catholic schools have today for priests and lay ministers to make the sign of the cross in ash on students’ foreheads: because along with strong math and literacy skills, our students need the resilience that can only come from the full truth of who they are and the hope that powers us all.