For the first time in my life, I felt like an outcast on Ash Wednesday.
I had always attended Catholic schools or worked for Christian organizations where a smear of ash on one’s forehead was more the norm than the exception on this special day. It wasn’t until I arrived at my job after an early morning Mass that I realized, “Oh yeah, I’m in the secular world now. There probably aren’t many people here celebrating the beginning of Lent.”
In fact, I was wrong; I was the only person in my organization of around 50 employees with ashes on my forehead that day. There were some double takes, a few curious stares, but mostly earnest questions from coworkers wondering if I’d inadvertently smeared grease on my forehead during my commute.
Most of my responses that day were short, practical—a quick “oh, I’m Catholic” or “it’s the start of Lent today”—before moving along with the business of the day.
At the time, I was working as a nurse practitioner in a re-entry focused health center, providing care for halfway house residents as they navigated the daunting transition out of incarceration. Several of my patients that day recognized the ashes as part of their own religious backgrounds, others had witnessed or participated in Ash Wednesday services behind prison walls.
Towards the end of the day, a patient completely unfamiliar with Ash Wednesday asked me, “but what does it mean?” The question caught me off guard and forced my attention away from the medical tasks that lay in front of us.
When my patient questioned not just the symbol itself but the deeper meaning behind it, I had an opportunity to be an “ambassador for Christ,” as Saint Paul writes in today’s second reading. This outward mark of my faith opened the door to share my personal belief in God’s mercy that heals the sin-sick soul.
When returning citizens come home to our communities after months, years, or even decades behind bars, they desperately need to know that the God of Joel and of each one of us is “gracious and merciful… slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.”
Even when employers, social service providers, and faith leaders have the best intentions, we too often associate returning citizens with the worst thing they’ve ever done. Our questions and checklists can retraumatize individuals rather than restoring their hope and self-confidence.
As ambassadors for Christ, let’s be a part of common-sense solutions that prevent people from returning to prison. But even more importantly, let’s ensure that returning citizens know that they are beloved, worthy, and forgiven in the arms of a merciful God.