Thus far, there has only been one Lenten season I did not start with ashes. The blizzard and sub-zero temperatures were our excuse for not swinging by the church, and when the priest arrived at our family gathering, he had forgotten his ashes back at the rectory. Like us, he was bereft. He was (is) the closest of family friends, and we were assembled at the local funeral home in our Pittsburgh suburb for my grandmother’s wake. We were seated in hard-backed chairs in a half-circle around her open casket. She was wearing the same black suit she had worn to my brother’s first wedding. I remembered how the suit has slipped through my hands as I had spun her around the dance floor that night. We both had been a little over-served, and it was lovely.
Do you all want me to go back, and get the ashes? the priest asked us.
My mother, who had been in a grief coma for the better part of the hour, briefly emerged to insist that he not drive any more than absolutely necessary given the weather. He said that he didn’t mind driving in the snow. And then they bickered back-and-forth for a moment, each trying to out-maneuver the other. My grandmother, who usually butted in to trump their micromanaging, reminded silent.
We’re good, I interjected, ending the conversation. By which I meant, Given the body of a loved one laying in our midst, we do not need an additional reminder of our mortality. I got up, and wandered over to the coffee table. I ate a cookie in plain sight of everyone. I sure as hell was not fasting that day, either.
Six years that feel like a lifetime later, in the midst of a global pandemic, I can hear the question from members from of my church and the world at large: Why do we ever need to be reminded of our mortality? Death is all around us. It comes for us, and those we love, whether we consider it or not. As poet Christina Rossetti writes, “Better by far you should forget and smile – Than that you should remember and be sad.” We all have our fair share of grief before us, especially now, so why do we need Ash Wedneday?
This conflation of the intentional contemplation of morality with the task of grief leads to a common mistake, one that I committed myself on the day of my grandmother’s wake. When we only consider our mortality in moments of profound sadness, we – quite naturally – equate mortality with what we have lost, and what we stand to lose in the future. But Ash Wednesday is not really about loss, or even death. The ashes with which we mark ourselves are a gift and a reminder about what makes our lives worth living.
Ashes mark our fragility. In the expanse of the universe around us, we are but small creatures made of the smallest of substances. The lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday call to mind how, throughout history, the people of God have been subject to the whims of empire and global events. The intent of these passages is multi-fold. If we are so fragile and small, then surely we must rely on the compassionate presence of the One who has never abandoned us. Ashes remind us that there is value in our vulnerability, because our vulnerability opens us up to a relationship with God.
And to relationship with each other. One of the reasons we receive ashes together (or, this year, together on Zoom) is because as we are all marked with the same ashes, we remember that we are all made of the same dust. Each of us is fragile. Each of us is vulnerable. And, as each of us has received compassion from God, then we ought also show compassion to one another.
Moreover, the dust of our common humanity is also the dust of a common existence. The ashes on our forehead are the same substance of all animals and plants. I remember when our community worshiped together while fires burned in eye-sight of Santa Rosa in October of 2017. Ashes dusted our hair, our faces, our vehicles. I remember wondering where the ashes had come from. To whom did they belong? Each of us. All of us. They were our shared world, which was (and is) crying our for our compassion.
The ashes that day, and this day, mark the urgency of our mortal coil. Remember that you are from dust, and to dust you shall return, God says to Adam in Genesis. This is not a reminder of death, as much as it is an invitation into life. Because this dust marks the beginning of the Lenten season – the time of year when Christians reorder our lives to live more like Jesus. Ash Wednesday is just one of forty days dedicated to the most important question of all, What will you do with the dust of your body while there is but life within it? Will you make yourself vulnerable before God? Will you have compassion for others? Will you work for justice for the least among us, and for the earth itself?
This year, I am committing myself to a tangible reordering. I will begin each morning with intention and prayer, rather than reaction and doom-scrolling. In my prayer, I will develop compassion for those who, in the past, have done me harm. I will set aside time each day for the longer-term work of organizing other advocates to bring about structural change for unsheltered people in my community. I will end each with gratitude and devotion, rather than rehashing and panicking about tomorrow.
And I will falter. In a season of returning, I will need to return again and again, because I am not perfect. I am in need of compassion, as much as anyone else who walks earth. After all, like you, like all of us, I am but dust – fallible and fragile.