In the past ...
Ash Wednesday 2001 was also in February, just a few months after a close election decided by Bush v. Gore in December of 2000. I was a Catholic graduate theology student at a Methodist institution, in a suburb of Atlanta, filling my car up with gas. The station was literally across the tracks in a poorer part of town where the cheaper gas fit my budget. I had just come from a church that was hard enough to locate in the days before GPS.
Asking for directions to a Catholic church in the south often got me weird looks. And on that night, I had a big smudge on my forehead while I pumped my own gas. The night was dark and I wore a Syrian keffiyeh as a neck scarf against the cold.
When I went to pay, the Arabic employee just sort of stared at me. I was not his usual customer at this late hour in the evening. He didn’t quite know what to make of me. So he gestured with his hands as he fumbled for change. He pointed to my scarf and I said, “My sister in Washington, D.C., gave it to me.” Then he pointed to my head, which is when I realized I still had ashes there. “Why?” he asked. “What does it mean?”
Since it was very cold and we both wanted to get back to our warm places, I fumbled with something quick to say. “It’s Ash Wednesday,” I said. But that didn’t get very far. “I’m Catholic … it’s a religious thing.”
I don't know what that conveyed to him, but that was as far as we got.
Less than a year later, I moved to D.C. to complete my theological training. I began my studies on September 11th. I stopped wearing my keffiyeh not long after when I rode the metro. During my studies, which included interfaith dialogue, I’ve gone back to that moment more than once.
I realize now, the simpler explanation could have been: “I am a sinner entering Lent.”
In the present ...
So here we are in 2021. Ash Wednesday this year falls after the 57-43 vote on Former 45’s second impeachment for the January 6 insurrection (our own self-inflicted 9/11). It also comes after Valentine's Day/Parkland Anniversary and the Super Bowl amid Black History Month to remind us of all the things we can cram into the shortest month. And like everything in 2021, the calendar cycles through a lens of how it’s not 2020, but we’re still not past its shadow either.
I don’t know whether mainstream media will make a big deal of Ash Wednesday with our second Catholic president. I suspect he might go to mass and would most likely have ashes imposed (perhaps placed on his forehead, perhaps sprinkled).
The scripture readings for the day are a bit ironic. They talk about how to not make a show of yourself. For example, if you are fasting, you should still clean yourself up and go about your day. After all, what you are doing isn’t for others to see, but for God to see. At the same time, there is a collective call for a public gathering and display so that everyone in the community understands and commits themselves to this period of reflection and preparation in advance of Easter.
I will leave it to priests’ homilies and secular pundits to apply these things to our everyday lives. I have a habit of wanting to experience things anew, not simply to repeat them. While I enjoy rituals and traditions, I am much more interested in change and transformation. Lent always begins with Ash Wednesday. It’s always 40 days. It always involves fasting, abstinence, and works of charity. It always culminates in Easter and Jesus’ resurrection.
In short, as I used to say when I taught such things in parish ministry, HE always rises. Good for Him. The question is, what happened to us? How have we changed? How do I have a better answer for the stranger who was less concerned about me paying for gas and wanted instead to know more about me and why I was there?
The simplest thing I can say in 2021 is this. “Remember you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” This is often what is said as the ashes are traced on foreheads in the sign of the cross. After 2020, mortality stares us in the face globally in a remarkable way. It’s the great equalizer. The baseline from which the human spirit arises in solidarity and acknowledgment of our inherent dignity. (Notions of pro-life don’t quite capture that.)
The other thing we Christians try to remember is that someone died for us and that calls us to change our lives radically. I don’t expect non-Christians or secular people to come to that exact same conclusion. But I think we can all look at 2020 or our lives before and acknowledge that sacrifices have been made and that people have died before us. And we owe them something. We need to do something to honor that debt and pay it forward.
- We owe Officer Brian Sicknick and two other fallen officers for doing their duty on January 6, alongside the courage of Officer Eugene Goodman, who is still with us.
- We owe our investment to better public health and safety for the 2.4M dead worldwide and 450K+ in the USA from COVID-19.
- We owe our continued commitment to social justice in the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis.
- We owe it to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, among so many other lives that matter to work for systematic change.
- We need to dedicate ourselves to addressing climate change as at least 54 are reported dead and another 200 are missing in India after a glacier broke in the Himalayas.
- We bear the burdens of 500+ children, separated from their families while trying to cross the border seeking asylum. They are still missing.
The list could and does go on. We all know loss of one kind or another. We all find hope somewhere that this is not the end for us. We have to be prepared. We have to get ready. Are 40 days enough? Are Biden’s first 100? Be resolved, we know what it has cost.
Somebody died for you. Make your life count for them.
I spent time with many Muslims in Atlanta aside from that gas attendant. Hassan was the chief of security at the museum where we both worked. He was a high-level engineer from Iraq, but this was the only job he could get in the states, perhaps because of his background as a soldier. I remember calling him from near the World Trade Center just moments after we first started bombing his country.
“It’s OK,” he said. “He’s a madman.” I also remember his last words to me before I left the area. “When I look at you, I see your keffiyeh and say to myself: There is my friend...”