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Roxane Salonen, Published February 15 2013

Living Faith: Marks of faith challenge the believer, others

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Each year I hear these words recited as an ashen cross is placed upon my forehead.

Ash Wednesday, which took place this week, marks the beginning of Lent, a season some Christians enter into in the weeks preceding Easter to focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

The goal: to prepare heart and soul for the resurrection to come.

This black “T” also represents who I am as a follower of the one I believe was both the son of God, fully human, and God himself, fully divine.

It is not without controversy. To wear the cross requires courage. I know that in bringing this sign into the public square, I risk ridicule.

Thankfully I live in a country in which I am free to express exteriorly my interior beliefs and feel relatively safe.

Others of other faiths bear their own exterior signs pointing to belief in something beyond this world: the red bindi pressed into the center of a Hindu woman’s forehead, the yarmulke placed atop the Jewish man, the hijab worn to cover the head of the Muslim woman.

Some last for a day, some for a season, others longer. All of these tangible signs of our gazing toward the intangible set us apart and often challenge those who don’t know or understand what it is we see.

At Lent’s beginning, smudged cross firmly affixed above my eyebrows, I am at both my most vulnerable and my strongest as I walk out of the pews and into the world.

Reaching the outside air, I pause. Will I be accepted or misunderstood? Do I have what it takes to continue?

I place one foot in front of the other, and another, sensing a force beyond my own nudging me forward.

I hear an echo of the words repeating in my mind; those words purposefully stated the moment ashes meet forehead.

In recent years, some churches have softened the phrasing: “Turn away from sin and believe the Gospel.” Though I think either adequately expresses what this mark of my faith, the cross, represents, I prefer the older phrase.

Though indeed jarring to hear “You are dust …” and be reminded of the brevity of this life, there’s also something real and holy about looking at truth straight on. And, it seems to me, there’s no truer truth than the fact that our lives are fleeting.

If we hide from this truth, we miss the opportunities to live while we can. Being reminded that we are here for but a short time, even while we squirm at the thought, can awaken us, help motivate us to seize the day.

I am dust, I will return to dust, and so I will rise up now and live boldly. I will go deeply into life and thoroughly into love and do everything possible to live not just for myself but for others.

The sacrificial life is the call of the faithful. And during Lent, we are newly reminded that we don’t really live until we are laying down our lives for others: my life for yours.

One way to do this, as a bumper sticker challenges, is to “Live simply so that others might simply live.”

If those who believe in this way enter into this season with intention, we may well find that our ashes are not signs of death but marks pointing to a life of light.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com.