That unforgettable Ash Wednesday photo

A week later, the image is still clearly etched in my mind.

In the aftermath of the Florida school shootings, dozens of media outlets carried a powerful AP photo that portrayed a blonde woman hugging another woman. The woman’s face is contorted with grief; her arm, around her friend’s shoulders, is at an odd angle as if it is clenched; you can almost see her shaking with sobs.

And on her forehead—unmistakable, front and center in the image—is a cross traced in ashes.

It was Ash Wednesday, remember? And the sight of those ashes, on that woman whose life had suddenly been shattered, evoked all sorts of thoughts appropriate to the season.

First, immediately, one was moved to pray for that woman and her friend. Were they mothers of children who were killed? Or friends? Were they overcome by anxiety, waiting to learn whether their children had survived? We didn’t know. But we did know that there were mothers, and children, who needed prayers.

(Later, on the social media, I saw that many people mocked those of us who called for prayers, insisting that we should concentrate on practical matters. But what would be more practical than prayer? A petition to lawmakers? How would that help the grieving women?)

But then the mind moved on to thoughts about suffering, and the wages of sin. To thoughts about those mothers who will be in mourning all during this season of Lent. Thoughts about a broken world, and how it needs restoration. Thoughts about the killing of the innocent. Thoughts about the Cross, traced on that poor woman’s forehead.

Little did that woman know, when she went to Mass that morning, that her face that day would have more impact than a thousand Ash Wednesday homilies. May the Lord ease her suffering—and help us voluntarily to suffer a bit more for these few weeks—as we prepare to commemorate the greatest of all injustices, the greatest of all triumphs.

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