“Kristy, remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”

These were the words my pastor spoke over me this Ash Wednesday as he touched my forehead with ashes in the sign of the cross. It felt significant to me to hear him say my name first. It made it feel so personal to have someone look me in the eyes, address me by name, and remind me that my life is mortal and my own body frail. It was also sobering to see my 3 year old looking at our pastor with bright eyes while he said the same words to her. As much as I would like to view my children differently, they too are bound to these bodies that don’t last into eternity. Yes, there is new life found on the other side of death, but death is our common human reality-young and old.

Right after receiving the ashes, I was moved to tears as we spoke words of confession as a body of believers and asked the Father to have mercy on us for the ways we had failed to love him and others. I was full of sorrow as I reflected on all the ways I had seen brokenness around me and in me over the last several months. I thanked him again that he knew our frame and remembered that we are but dust.

Observing Ash Wednesday this year has come in a long line of other traditions Eric and I have taken part in throughout this year’s church calendar. There is a quote by Father Virgilio Elizondo in his book Galilean Journey that has to do with the liturgical traditions practiced in our Latino culture. It is really profound and speaks to some of why we’ve partcipated in so many of these traditions this year.

The ensemble of the yearly celebrations of the people is equally the living Christian creed of the Mexican-American ecclesial community. It does not so much recite the creed in an abstract way as live it out, celebrate it, and transmit it in real life and in life-filled celebrations. Our confession of faith is lived out in the language, songs, gestures, dramatizations, and symbols of the people. It is our Christian tradition. It is our creed as received, interiorized, and expressed collectively by our faith community. p. 32

As I’ve been on my own ethnic identity journey the last several years, I’ve found myself drawn to these traditions of my youth that were a part of my years in the Catholic church and connected to my heritage as a Latina. Whether it was Las Posadas or Dia De Los Reyes, it has been good for my soul to enter in to the “living Christian creed” of my culture and to invite my kids to experience the unique ways Latinos express their faith through these practices and celebrations.

If I’m honest, I think another reason I’ve been so stirred to re-engage this part of my ethnic story is because of how hard of a year our family has had as a whole. With major life transitions, broken relationships, death, and illness, I have had to fight not to lose myself in grief. It has been a year of much loss, and when I feel such sadness, I tend to look for a place to stand firmly and to feel secure. Following the liturgical calendar and staying connected to the story of the gospels in this way has been that place for me. It’s been a place to to feel both sorrow and joy in all the different expressions of my Latino community’s traditions.

As we walked house to house during Las Posadas, singing songs reenacting the story of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to give birth to the Savior, I felt the rejection they must have experienced that night in new ways. I knew there was space in the Christmas story for my own feelings of rejection I was experiencing in relationships around me, and I allowed myself to mourn along side the parents of the baby king as they looked for space in someone’s home for them.

I also rejoiced with our daughter when we cut into the rosca de reyes and she found the baby Jesus hidden inside. I thanked God for all the ways he had spared us this year as we celebrated how he had protected the Messiah from the hand of Herod. We talked with our kids about how this little newborn baby ushered in a new Kingdom and we were so very grateful.

We wept together as a family as we observed the Feast of Holy Innocents remembering all the children who were massacred as it is written in the book of Matthew. We spent time lamenting that we lived in world where Herod still reigns and the world has not been made right.

And then this week, as we’ve entered this season of Lent with Ash Wednesday, I’ve thanked God for his mercy. I’ve thanked him for how from ashes, he can bring new life as we await his Easter to come.

So, again, it’s been a meaningful year for us as we’ve practiced all these cultural traditions. They have helped me integrate all of our life experiences with our faith in the One who holds the world together. Over the next forty days I will also fast and invite God to meet us as we look ahead into a very uncertain future. In the same way that we will anticipate the celebration of his remembered resurrection soon, I will also await his dawn in our own life as we continue to struggle through some challenging times. But even if our year continues to be hard and even if our circumstances continue to take us through valleys, I am confident there is space in his story for all of it. I’m thankful for a culture whose rhythm of faith reflects it too.

photo courtesy: nathangibbs