She presses her thumb gently against my forehead making the sign of the cross.
Turn away from your sin and be faithful to the Gospel.
The words hit me like an unexpected gust of wind. Refreshing, but it takes my breath away. This is what I'm doing here. Here, in this cathedral after having shed Catholicism like an old skin. Snakes grow but their skin doesn't. The religion of my childhood felt tight and dry so I abandoned it years ago. Well, almost. I still feel it in my bones.
I look around at the sea of faces smudged with oil and ash. I see that I am one of many, not terminally unique as I had once feared. We are all broken, and in this sacred place we gather together to acknowledge our shortcomings.
We flock to mass on Ash Wednesday, practicing or not, we receive our ashes and return to our errands or offices bearing the mark of our humanity. Many parishes will have received their highest attendance of the year today; higher than Christmas or even Easter. What is it about those ashes that draws so many close to the body of Christ?
I'm not sure I can explain it but I think I know.