ASH WEDNESDAY in a Pandemicwhat is Ash Wednesday all about?

It was a Wednesday morning.  Nothing unusual was happening in the classroom where I was teaching a class of high school students.   Nothing unusual, except they were more attentive than usual.  

Something was different. But I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Then a bell rang – not the usual “time for the class to end” bell – but a different bell.  Somehow the students knew what it meant. They slowly got out of their seats and headed in single file to the door, quietly.  “Miss,” one of the students said, “We’ll be back once we’ve been to the chapel and had the ashes put on our foreheads.”

Just then the Principal came into the classroom and ushered the students out – apologizing that she’d not advised me about the interruption ahead of time.   “The students will be back in the classroom in about half an hour”  she said.  And with that, she and the students left the classroom.  

I has just turned twenty, three months earlier. It was my first teaching position.  I was in a private school – a Roman Catholic school.  At that time, my knowledge of Christianity, let alone Roman Catholicism, was limited. Very limited.  Though I had been raised in a loving home, I had not been baptized nor exposed to a church that included rituals anywhere close to “Ashes on foreheads.”  All of it was so new to me.

The school was quiet – no one in the corridors.  The only sound I heard came from the Chapel – quiet music, muted voices.  When the students returned to the classroom, their foreheads had a black substance smudged on it.   They were sombre, quiet. Something about them was different. But again, I couldn’t quite figure it out.   

When I asked them to tell me what had happened in the Chapel, the students seemed to take delight in being my teacher!  “Today is the day when we tell God we are very sorry for the times we’ve moved away and that we want to be better people.”  But, I wondered, why the public display of the cross on their foreheads?   “Ah, Miss, that reminds us that we’re all human and that we began as dust and will end as dust.”   

Sounded to me like an ugly threat – “You’re going to die!”  Well, I knew that one day I would die, but why would anyone want to go to church to be reminded, every year, that “from dust you have come; to dust you will go”?   It seemed incredibly maudlin to me.

After school that day, I encountered Harry, one of the high school students I tutored. He was one of the few non-Christians at the private Roman Catholic school he attended and so was exempt from Chapel. But there he was, with a smudged sign of the cross on his forehead. He told me that his friends said they were going to receive the imposition of ashes and invited him along.  He went, not because he wanted to, but because his friends had invited him and besides, he was curious about it all. 

When he received the ashes on his forehead, he said that he felt that something had changed.  He shared these words which he wrote in his journal … “As I received the ashes, all at once I realized in a whole new way, that it’s really true – “we are dust and we will return to dust when we diet.”   He realized at that moment that life is transitory … and that he wouldn’t live forever.

In Christian churches around the world, before the pandemic, people would gather to receive the ashes on their forehead and hear the words  “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.”  Certainly no one’s favourite words, but they represent a truth of which we all need to be reminded from time to time.  Sadly, September 11th did that.  This year, tragically, January 6th, did that.  People realized their own mortality.

That’s what Ash Wednesday does.  It is a sober reminder that we are not immortal.  We are mortal. Ash Wednesday reminds us that it is impossible to handle our problems and live our lives without help from anyone else. Paradoxically, that is precisely the point at which we can become new people. When we are weak, G_d, the Creator, the Holy One is our strength. 

Acknowledging our humanity, our vulnerability, our mortality helps us to live more fully. One way to do that, is to receive the imposition of ashes on our foreheads.  That ritual is simply an outward symbol of what is hoped would happen internally and a commitment to be the best we can be.

Do we need to be a Christian to do that?  No.  Do we need to have experienced an Ash Wednesday service before?  No.  Do we need to be connected to a church to do that?  No.  All we need to do is accept our mortality, and allow the ashes to be a sign that we recognize that our mortal life is a gift and commit ourselves, with the help of the Holy One, to use the rest of our mortal life to the very best of our ability. 

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday – the beginning of the Season of Lent, the 40-day penitential period before the celebration of Easter. The imposition of ashes, an ancient Jewish tradition, was a public sign of an individual’s repentance.  By the seventh century, the Christian church adopted it as part of the Church’s Lenten preparation when people would find their way to a church and receive the imposition of ashes. But we’re in a pandemic. Churches aren’t open.  How can Ash Wednesday be observed in a pandemic?

Churches are becoming wonderfully creative!

Some are supplying ashes for individuals/families so that they can sprinkle the ashes into the palm of their own or a family member’s hand and apply it themselves.  Some are encouraging the use of a cotton Qtip which could be dipped into the ashes and the ashes placed on the forehead that way.  Other congregations are giving members dirt, seed and water instead of ashes, acknowledging that from the dust of the world, new hope springs. 

Still other churches are encouraging people to mark their hearts with the sign of a heart or the Cross as an outward and visible sign that of the intention is to turn hearts over to God and experience God’s unconditional love and forgiveness in a new way.

Whatever way each of us chooses to observe Ash Wednesday, may we enter into the ritual with reverence and humility and with gratitude. Ash Wednesday is, for me, a gift … a precious opportunity to acknowledge my humanity, my vulnerability, my mortality.

May this Ash Wednesday – a pandemic Ash Wednesday – be a moment of grace and lead to a holy Lent.

© June Maffin