Ash Wednesday’s universal message: Honor sacrifices made for our future

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.

Postscript ...

My first protest of the Trump era: Neighbors protesting the Muslim Ban Feb. 7, 2017, stand in solidarity outside ADAMS center in Sterling, Virginia, near Dulles airport, while Muslims come to pray.

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...

Republicans just proved it: If the filibuster doesn’t end, we cannot restore our democracy

The founding fathers, chafing under the malign thumb of Britain's monarchy, most definitely envisioned the potential for a Donald Trump. Alexander Hamilton pretty much nailed Trump in 1792: "When a man unprincipled in private life[,] desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper … despotic in his ordinary demeanour—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may 'ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.'"

Thus we have the tool of impeachment and the checks and balances of a legislative, executive, and judicial system. What the founders apparently didn't account for in their careful crafting of the three branches was a Mitch McConnell, a lawmaker so unprincipled that he would enter into a bargain with Trump to enhance his personal power at the expense of the whole Senate, and use that power to subvert the third branch—the judiciary. The reasonable "cooling saucer" of the Senate created to counterbalance the rabble in the House of Representatives wasn't supposed to become a tool of the corrupt, but here we are—and not for the first time. There's a throughline in all of American history for the fight against majority rule democracy: white supremacy. Every sustained backlash against progress has come from privileged whites. We saw its violent and very public resurgence in Trumpism, a storm Republicans have been happy to ride. There are myriad reforms the country has to undertake to beat that back down again, but it has to start now and in the Senate, with the filibuster.

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The vehicle for that is singular: H.R.1, the For the People Act of 2021, and its companion in the Senate, S.1. The House bill, first passed in 2019 and subsequently ignored by McConnell, would enact substantial and groundbreaking electoral reforms. It would remove existing barriers to voting, secure the elections processes to secure the integrity of the vote, expand public financing to fight the pernicious entrenched and monied interests, and ban congressional gerrymandering to ensure equal and fair representation in the House of Representatives. It would also start to chip away at the imbalance of representation in the Senate—where states like Wyoming have a fraction of the population of the nation's largest cities—by granting statehood to the District of Columbia.

That bill is not going to pass the Senate if the filibuster holds, nor is any of President Joe Biden's agenda. Senate Republicans made that abundantly clear from Biden's first day in office, and even before. When the Senate flipped into Democratic hands on Jan. 5 with the runoff results in Georgia, McConnell started in, refusing to bring the Senate out of recess until Jan. 19. (That also built in his excuse for not voting to convict Donald Trump in his impeachment—he could say then, duplicitously, that a former president couldn't be convicted.) McConnell then spent three weeks refusing to allow Biden to form a complete Cabinet by blocking an organizing resolution for the Senate, the necessary piece of business for all of the committees assignments be made and the committees to start serious business, like considering legislation referred to them and processing Biden's nominees.

McConnell—with the tacit support of 49 Republican senators—insisted that this was all in the name of "unity," just like Biden wanted. His stance was that Democrats had to prove that they wanted unity by capitulating to his demand that they promise not to get rid of the filibuster and let him continue to block Biden's agenda and his nominees. To Schumer's credit, he didn't get that. To Joe Manchin's and Kyrsten Sinema's discredit, they agreed with McConnell. Sinema, in fact, has continued to do so.

Sinema is insisting that she'll oppose a minimum wage increase in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that Democrats are pushing through using budget reconciliation, a limited tool that isn't subject to the 60-vote majority rule and thus can't be filibustered. More than that, Sinema says: "I want to restore the 60-vote threshold for all elements of the Senate's work." That would mean handing a veto of every Biden nominee—including potentially to the Supreme Court—to McConnell.

Sinema is undoubtedly trying to hedge her bets just in case Republicans retake the Senate in 2022, trying to worm her way into their good graces. As if McConnell and team would reward a Democrat for anything. As if it wasn't a betrayal of her own constituents, who support a minimum wage increase. As if it wasn't a betrayal of the LBGTQ community in which Sinema claims membership. She's expressed her willingness to help Republicans filibuster the Equality Act, which bans discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. She's saying that she'll reimpose the 60-vote threshold to block Biden's pro-equality judges after Trump appointed so many anti-equality judges, needing just 51 votes.

She somehow believes that this can be put in the hands of Senate Republicans, only seven of whom voted to convict the guy who incited and directed an insurrection against them, a mob that was primed quite literally for their blood—and very nearly got it.  So, sure, these will be the people who will provide the 10 votes necessary to help Biden save the nation from COVID-19, provide health care to everyone in the aftermath of this pandemic, and finally enact comprehensive immigration reform to help border states like Arizona.

Which takes us back to the For the People Act. The events of Jan. 6 and the Senate Republicans' acquittal of Trump underline just how critical it is that Democrats respond forcefully and quickly to stamp down the radicalized Republican Party, to end its ability to maintain outsized power while representing the minority of the nation's population. It means, particularly for the likes of Manchin and Sinema, realizing that the Republicans they pal around with everyday are not their friends. That they would perhaps lament their deaths at the hands of a violent mob, but aren't going to act to prevent it from happening. It means ending the filibuster.

The For the People Act is the vehicle to use to do just that, because it would level the playing field for Democrats. More than that, it would allow for actual majority rule—for the majority of voters to have their will enacted. To have universal accessible and affordable health care. To have an economic system that's not weighted against them. To not have their families living in fear of separation. To have a government taking on the changes in the climate that threaten to make living in their home regions impossible.

None of that happens without a profound change in our electoral system, and H.R.1/S.1 would start that process. It's also where to dare Sinema and Manchin to thwart the will of the majorities who elected them, to dare them to stand with the white supremacist Republican Party that is fighting to keep whole communities of color disenfranchised.