I love Ash Wednesday. I love the feel of an oily black cross on my head, the reminder that we are all dust. I love walking around looking dirty and strange in a way that lets folks know we Christians are walking with Jesus in his death and resurrection. It is one of the few Christian rituals that is open to anyone regardless of denomination or belief. Each year the journey into the mystery of the resurrection and abundant life begins first with the collective acknowledgement that we are all sinners, that we are all going to die.
As another season of Lent approaches, I can’t help thinking back to Ash Wednesday last year, a day that smudged itself like soot in my memory. In January 2018, I started asking around to see if anyone had made plans for a Wednesday service. I worship with an ecumenical religious community that doesn’t have a pastor, so this is one of those rituals that doesn’t always happen in our space. I was happy when I heard that the local Catholic Karenni refugee community had planned a service at the school that offers free ESL classes. The service would be in the Karenni language and I imagined myself sitting there on the receiving end, letting the words wash over me and the ashes to mark me without need for translation.
Plans — especially when working across language and culture — can change quickly.
I was excited to attend, but plans — especially when working across language and culture — can change quickly. On Sunday, my friend Prei Mo, asked if I could prepare the ashes for the service. I agreed. Then she asked if I could also administer the ashes. In the eyes of the Catholic Church anyone, ordained or lay, can administer ashes on Ash Wednesday, but, in most churches, priests and pastors do the dirty, blessed work. I kept asking her if anyone else in her community could do it. She said that no one else was willing. I had done it the year before and she said that she wanted me to do it again. So I agreed, considering it an honor.
Ash Wednesday was also Valentine’s Day. I sent the kids off to school with chocolate kisses and heart shaped muffins. The year before, I had used ashes from our wood stove and this year I wanted something more solid black than gray. My husband, Michael, rummaged through his art supplies to find a piece of vine charcoal, which is a grape vine that has been transformed, by fire, into solid carbon. You can tell if it’s true vine charcoal by the knots and visible wood grain. He placed a hunk of granite on our kitchen table and used a hammer to gently pulverize the charcoal. Michael put the black dust in a ceramic bowl and poured out the last drops of our olive oil. The mixture was too dry. I added a lump of coconut oil, thinking of the palm trees many of my friends left behind in Burma and Thailand before being resettled as refugees in the United States. I pulled out a small vial of rose oil and added just two drops: one for the sweet love of Jesus and one for Valentine’s Day.
I smeared a gritty black cross upon her head and reminded her that she, my sweet precious baby, is dust.
After the usual after school busyness, when it was time for me to leave for the Ash Wednesday service, my seven-year-old turned to me and said: “Wait, Mommy, can you do me?” I smeared a gritty black cross upon her head and reminded her that she, my sweet precious baby, is dust. As I drove less than a mile to the school, I passed a former ESL teacher. I rolled down my window and shouted, “Hey, I’m offering drive-by ashes if you want.” She didn’t have time to come to the service. We hopped out of our cars, I marked her head, and we hugged right there at the intersection of Forest and Madison.
I carried my bowl of ashes into the school just as class let out. Prei Mo was there with her three young boys. I helped her move chairs and tables to transform the classroom into a worship space. She had buried her stepfather the past October and his funeral had been in this school building. I came to the hospital the day before he died. The next day, I watched her decorate his handmade wooden coffin with gold and white contact paper and line it with fresh pillows and white sheets. In this room, that had only months ago held her stepfather’s coffin, Prei Mo spread a white cloth, candles, an icon of Jesus and a plastic squirt bottle labeled “Holy Water” on a table. I set the bowl of ashes and a pile of paper napkins in the center. I sat beside Prei Mo and her boys and felt a particular nearness to her family’s fresh grief while we waited for the service to begin.
The leader was running late, kids were getting squirmy, and the room was filling up with both Karenni and native English speaking neighbors. Prei Mo leaned over and said: “Can you lead the service, please?” I don’t speak Karenni, I’m not a pastor, and I’m not Catholic. I had been on the go all day and wanted to just sit and be on the receiving end of the blessing.
Refugees whose bamboo homes were turned to ashes in the fires of war, people for whom Christ’s suffering was not metaphor but shared experience, were coming to me for a blessing.
“Of course,” I said. I asked around for a Bible and read Psalm 51 and asked if someone could read it in Karenni. Those who knew it sang “Create in me a clean heart, oh God” and many who were gathered sang a Karenni worship song. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer in the language of our hearts. And then I invited anyone in the room to come forward to receive ashes as they felt led.
Making the sign of the cross upon soft moon-faced babies and foreheads with stories written in each deep wrinkle and crease, I felt myself disappearing, my hands moving in joyful obedience, my eyes beholding Christ in each person. Refugees whose bamboo homes were turned to ashes in the fires of war, people for whom Christ’s suffering was not metaphor but shared experience, were coming to me for a blessing.
That same day, miles away, in Parkland, Florida, a community reeled from the toxic blend of untreated mental illness and unfettered access to guns. 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school were murdered on Ash Wednesday. An iconic photo began to circulate the web. In it a mother with a cross smudged on her forehead embraced another mother at the scene of the school massacre. This photo of open lament and love reverberated through the hearts of a shocked and grieving nation as churches and communities repeated the familiar ritual: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Back in the small English school, I felt wholly unworthy and wholly blessed to touch each face with oil and ash. After administering the ashes, my blackened thumb smelled of roses. I asked someone in the room, I can’t remember who, to mark me, too.