Here is, more or less, the order of what you are taught in small town Southern Baptist Churches:
1.) God created the world and people. (In seven days, of course.)
2.) The devil tempted the woman to sin. She sinned and then made the man sin. The world became bad after that.
3.) Jesus loves little boys and girls, even though they are bad. He died because you are bad.
4.) Jesus came back to life.
5.) If you believe in Jesus and ask him into your heart you don't have to go to hell.
6.) Don't even think of becoming Catholic.
I was taught from a very early age that I wasn't Catholic. Catholics go through dead rituals. Catholics have to go through a priest to be forgiven for their sins. You don't have to do any of that. You have the Holy Spirit. You can go directly to God.
Most of those who taught me stopped just short of proclaiming Catholics hellbound. Most. But all things Catholic were strictly avoided. I suspect many people in my hometown didn't have more than two or three children because they didn't want people to start wondering if they had gone papist. Make sure your crosses don't have Jesus on them. He aint on that cross no more brothers and sisters! He is RISEN! There wasn't even a respectable Italian place to eat at in Tyler, that I knew of. If you wanted to eat the food of Rome you had to do it in the privacy of your own home, with the curtains drawn.
Just a side note: As a grown-up I've come to the conclusion that our antipathy toward Catholism probably had less to do with a theological conslusion of the priesthood of the believer and more to do with us not wanting to tell anyone our secrets.
It was in this world that my faith was forged. Where "you don't have to" generally preceded any mention of ritual. In that world Ash Wednesday was no different than Yom Kippur or Arbor Day. They were just things that occupied the space at the bottom of calendars. I may have wondered as a kid what these holidays were, but I dared not ask.
It was only a few short years ago when I saw my first person in town with the smudge of black on their head. By then I had heard rumors of what Ash Wednesday was about but I had thought that surely those who practiced such useless rituals at least head enough respectibility to clean their heads off with soap and water before they went out in public. I mean, please. Give me a break.
I string together many words at times extolling the virtues of growing up in a small town. This is not one of those virtues.
Ash Wednesday. The day we begin to prepare. Not for the empty tomb, but for the cross. It's a day where we think about our sin. About ourselves. About the very bad-ness that flows in our veins and is rushing in and out of our bodies with every breath we take. It's about me acknowledging who, and what, I am. I am dust. I came from dust and I'll go back to dust.
If you want to know where I am spiritually, I'll tell you. You will be my priest today:
Read some of my blogs and some of my replies to other people's blogs and if you can get past some of the methods I use to make myself look nice and good you'll see a person who is full of things other than faith, hope, and love.
There are days when I have to consciously remind myself that I'm a Christian. I'm not a Christian today because I believe in the resurrection, although there are many days when I believe in it with all my heart. I'm not a Christian today because I've chosen it or because I was predestined for it. I'm a Christian today because I've reminded myself that I am. I'm a Christian because of participating in a ritual that, according to my pastor growing up, isn't necessary.
For me, today, it was the most necessary thing in the world.