“You got something on your forehead.” I mumbled to my freshman roommate, Sandra, as I sat up in bed. As always, she was up hours before me and today she had come back to our dorm room with a gray smudge on her head.

“What?” She asked a little bewildered.

“You got some junk on your forehead,” as I motioned on my own forehead that she needed to wipe it off. “It’s ash,” she stated matter-of-factly.

“O-K?”

“For Ash Wednesday.”

“I have NO idea what you’re talking about.”

At this point, she looked at me like I was from another planet, but thankfully she liked me and being the genius that she was (no kidding), she was always willing to play the teacher. Sandra began to tell me of the significance of Ash Wednesday and Lent – what?! – and how it all led up to Easter. Easter! Now that was something my Southern Baptist mind could comprehend. Somehow, even though I grew up in the church, came from a Christian family – yada,yada,yada – I seemed to skip the memo on all that led up to this Holy Day. Looking back, even Palm Sunday seemed like a surprise to me late in life. How was it that I had never practiced or even heard of these things?

Well, it turns out that Ash Wednesday and Lent are observed in the more traditional, liturgical denominations. Ok, but still, how did I go my whole life without hearing of any of this? A mystery still. So on that early (or so it seemed to me) Wednesday morning in our dorm room, Sandra educated me.

“Ash Wednesday in its simplest terms is the first day of Lent. It’s a day of repentance that begins the start of a fast consisting of 40 days, not including Sundays.”

“Yikes. You mean you don’t eat for 40 days?” I asked wide-eyed.

“No. Not exactly.” Sandra went on to explain that typically a person observing Lent would choose to give up something. “Start small,” she cautioned.

“Like Lil’ Bernies.” This was our to-die-for little Italian place on campus which I frequented almost every evening for pizza rolls.

“Do you really think you can give up Bernies?”

“Ummmm, no. How ‘bout soda?”

“That will work.” Sandra smiled and made sure that I realized that the fundamental and most important part of Lent is to draw us closer to God through repentance and sacrifice and to put our focus on all that it leads up to – the crucifixion and resurrection.

“Love it. I’m doing it.” I truly was so excited. Midway through my freshman year I was hungry for something to bring my focus back to where it should have been.

I learned a lot in college, but that lesson on that Wednesday morning was one of the best. Since then, I have learned perhaps why I never heard of Ash Wednesday or Lent while growing up in my church. It stems from Matthew 6:16-18 where Jesus said, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

For me, it all goes back to our hearts and what the true reasons are for the actions we choose. Does the Bible say that on the Wednesday 40 days (not including Sundays) before Easter that we should go and get an ash in the shape of a cross on our foreheads and give up something for those 40 days? Not specifically, no. But doing so has drawn this former Southern Baptist to draw closer to Jesus, his crucifixion, and his resurrection for the past eleven years. And that’s really all that God desires from me this season.

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