When my husband and I bought our first home last year, we had no idea what we were getting into. Our two-bedroom condo was by no means fancy, but it was a good size for our season of life, and I felt confident we could make it into a home.
There were several cosmetic issues that we discussed fixing up, but the most pressing was the popcorn ceiling, which we affectionately began to refer to as our “archenemy.” I had never lived in a place with textured ceilings, and the effect disgusted me—I thought it looked like moldy fruit or larvae waiting to hatch. I wasn’t surprised to learn its official nickname was “cottage cheese ceiling,” but I wondered why anyone would have intentionally installed it.
My husband soon educated me that the popcorn ceiling was a quick-fix invention of the 1950s, a cheap spray-on treatment that builders used primarily for its ability to hide imperfections. After nearly six months of sweaty, dusty weekends alternated with weekends of avoidance and procrastination, I now understand the appeal of a quick spray treatment. But I also have a clearer knowledge of the mending and patching that the ceiling underneath truly needed. For me, this whole project has become something of a metaphor for the importance of exposing the dusty places in need of repair—in my house and in my soul.
“I’m not so bad, right?”
Every year on Ash Wednesday, the priest applies ashes to our forehead as he says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Every year, I ask myself why I need to remember this. I convince myself I’m not all that dusty, and that it would be simpler to leave my exterior, and interior, as they are. After all, I’m normally easy to live with and I apologize to my husband when I’m not. I work hard at home and for my job. I even pray sometimes! Really, I’m not so bad.
Then I remember that without stripping the popcorn ceiling in our house, we never would have known about what lay underneath; and without embracing Lent, I might remain separated from God in areas that he wanted to change. This is my opportunity to invite God to create a more pleasing finish, inside and out.
Ashes on the forehead symbolize the dust from which God made us, as well as our grief because we have sinned and caused division with God. Just because I don’t feel that grief naturally doesn’t mean everything is clean and neat deep within me. Ignoring the dusty areas of my heart does not resolve the problem. But asking God to make me whole and holy—and then taking some active steps—is sure to make a difference. That’s why Lent is such a precious gift from God.
Let God go to Work.
When I muster up the courage to do a full examination of conscience—to peek under the surface—it becomes clear that I do have my own “popcorn ceiling problem.” I’m often motivated by love of my own comfort or the need to be understood or some other self-focused attitude. But that’s nothing to despair about! I’m just seeing the reality and resolving to call in God for some renovation.
Every year, the Sunday Lectionary readings bring us through the story of one of the Gospels. What’s more, each feast day and special season is meant to drum a certain truth into our minds and our bodies. Lent is the time when we get the benefit of an outside source to remind us that under the façade, there’s work to be done.
But what a relief that God is such a gentle worker! In the same breath that he says that we are dust, he says that we are made in his image, that he loves us, and that he has forgiven our sins. The more we lean into this grace of repentance and renewal, the more we grow into what we were created to be— and the closer we will be to God when Easter arrives.
Deliver Me, Oh Lord!
There is an Audrey Assad song based on the Litany of Humility prayer by Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val. This Lent, I invite you to listen and pray the words as a humble response to your examination of conscience. It’s called “I Shall Not Want” and a few of the lyrics are as follows:
From the love of my own comfort
From the fear of having nothing
From a life of worldly passions
From the need to be understood
From the need to be accepted
From the fear of being lonely
From the fear of serving others
From the fear of death or trial
From the fear of humility
Deliver me O God.
Rather than try to prove to myself and to the world that I’m perfect, this Lent, I’m going to try to face my hidden motives and fears so that I can offer them up to God’s love and mercy.
During the distribution of the ashes, the priest may choose to speak the words, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” This is the flip side of remembering that we are dust. Ash Wednesday gives us this double blessing: a chance to accept that we are dust—but to believe that we are also becoming a “new creation” with hard work, and God’s grace.
Jane Gross and her husband live in Hawaii.