Every year, I look forward to Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent with the kind of relish that only one raised with a certain sort of Midwestern stoicism and glory in suffering can amass.
Maybe it is the same part of me who brags about walking outside in 15 below, up the hill both ways to school growing up in Minnesota, or having to shovel the church sidewalk before waving palms on a chilly April morning.
At its worst, or sometimes its best, Ash Wednesday is a hair’s breadth away from schadenfreude, a glory in others’, or our own, misfortune. For one day in the church year the George Costanzas of our congregations rejoice! You should fear success! The Christian life is about suffering and pain! Now give up that chocolate and hit the gym. Do your devotions each morning. Trudge your weary winter self to church to eat watery soup supper with paltry crackers. Rejoice in your mediocrity!
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Of course this is a shallow way of looking at one of the richest days of the church year, and yet I also know it’s a message that Americans have often needed. On Ash Wednesday you are invited to come to church as you are. You’re encouraged to wear your pain, your grief, your failure, on the sign of a cross on your forehead.
Today I saw a video a pastor friend made for last year’s Ash Wednesday, to tune of the old TV show, Green Acres:
Ash Wednesday is the day for me! Reeeemembering Mortality!
Get those ashes on top your head.
And remember that one day you’ll be dead.
Thanks Pastor Joseph Graumann Jr.!
The tune has a certain sort of calming and honest simplicity, in a church where too often we over-complicate and over-spiritualize the realities of everyday life, to the point that many people think church has nothing to do with their everyday lives.
And so I was satisfied each Ash Wednesday, knowing that despite the ashes and wreckage and imperfection of my life, this one day the church service would acknowledge and honor that imperfection, and in doing so would remind me that this acknowledgment, this extra-special day of repentance, would usher in eventually a reminder that, like the dust of the earth, I too was created for the glory of God, and that my dust would be like stardust, a promise of eternal life, love, and relationship with God.
Then, COVID-19 came along. Suddenly, ashes were everywhere.
I read this article from the Los Angeles Times about Diego Pablo, the overworked and chagrined cremator of L.A. At 44 years old, Pablo had long worked alone, burning bodies into ashes for grieving families, on staff at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. There were so many bodies to burn this year, especially after a devastating COVID surge hit Southern California, that the cemetery had to add a second worker to burn the bodies. Pablo was training 23-year-old Tristen McBride for the night shift.
Unlike many Americans during COVID, Pablo had excellent job security in the midst of the pandemic. But like most of us, the ashes - the unremitting death - tormented him in sometimes unexpected ways. The L.A. Times called him, as opposed to a first responder, a last responder. Like so many who are employed to clean up after those more privileged than themselves, Pablo cannot take a spring vacation or dwell in the vast dark spaces of the COVID-denying Internet to pretend the pandemic isn’t happening. Instead, he lives with its death each day. Unsurprisingly, he himself contracted the virus, during the havoc-filled Southern California COVID days of December, and the virus spread through the one-bedroom apartment he shared with two cousins.
Pablo survived his bout with COVID. But his heart bears the calluses of the last year, and he talks about it in ways that Christians would do well to recognize on this Ash Wednesday 2021.
Pablo told the L.A. Times: “When it hits us personally, I try to feel what these families feel. When you feel the pain and the tears. But nothing comes out. I feel nothing. Sometimes I worry I have a hard heart. A cold heart. I think that’s what’s helped me do this job for so long.”
Pablo and McBride cremated 58 people in January 2021, compared to just 17 a year earlier. A nearby crematory had to shut down due to Southern California restrictions on air quality, due to so much death and so much burning.
Another nearby mortuary had to stop allowing family members watch their loved ones’ bodies being placed in the chamber. It took too much time. There were too many bodies, too many ashes. The fire raged, consuming everyone in its path. Some, standing in the midst of the fire, they gave it their humanity, becoming cold and hard inside so that the flames couldn’t touch them.
We all have had to do what we do to survive.
And so Pablo sits after the burning in his windowless office, doing paperwork for the dead.
I lay out tiny tins of ashes we bought online.
Usually in the church we would use the palms we burned on Palm Sunday for the following Ash Wednesday, but last year there were no palms. We’d worshiped online together in quarantine, the hollow sound of our voices alone echoing hymns and prayers. Back then we imagined that we’d survive by Zoom and singing and solidarity. Now it is another year and much goodwill has been lost.
Pablo keeps working. He attends a service at work for his own cousin. His heart alternately breaks open and snaps shut. There are so many ashes and so much death. There is work and bills and food and rent. What is a life in these days? What kind of God could gather up this vast dust of death and make life again?
This Lent is different. We do not need more reminders of our own mortality. It surrounds us, haunts us, dwells in the bodies of those first responders and last responders who guard our days.
And so I did not particularly want Ash Wednesday or Lent this year. It has felt like Lent since March 2020. The ever-present shadow of a global pandemic. The angry words traded between family and friends. The mistrust and suspicion. The lack of an off-valve.
This is not the Lent I wanted: services without suppers, sharing the peace without sharing hugs, the vacuity of empty spaces and desperate attempts to pretend we are somehow untouched by the reality of COVID.
Nevertheless, this is perhaps the Lent I needed. And so I will wear my ashes in solidarity with Diego Pablo and the millions of others who have lived next to death for far too long. I will acknowledge that Lent is not about my own shortcoming but about God’s unimaginable ability to pull life out of death, creation out of dust, green buds out of brittle branches, forgiveness out of anger and fear.
The gift of hope this Lent is not that my mediocrity is normal, or the church can embrace imperfect me or you. We learn that each year. This year, in a Lent coupled with far too many ashes and far too much unjust death, the gift of hope is that my standing among the ashes is a recognition that God dwells here, too. In acknowledgement of suffering, death, and pain — in this is God glorified. In the ignominious cross, our ashes - the ashes of our loved ones long dead and newly lost — merge with the promise of a new life that rises from the flames.
This is not the Lent I wanted. I wanted to give up chocolate or wine or commit to a new practice of reading my Bible. I did not want to pay homage and dwell in the grief and death of this year. But this is the Lent I received: the Lent of a God who walked himself into death and grief and pain and shame, refusing to avert his eyes, so that when I entered into that grief and death myself, I would find my God right next to me.
Savior when in dust to you … Low we bow in homage due;
Listen to our humble sigh; Hear our penitential cry!
Angela Denker, author of Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters who elected Donald Trump (Fortress: August 2019), is a Lutheran Pastor and veteran journalist who has written for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, Christian Century, and Christianity Today. She has pastored congregations in Las Vegas, Chicago, Orange County (Calif.), the Twin Cities, and rural Minnesota.
To write Red State Christians, Angela spent 2018 traveling across America to interview Christians and Christian leaders in red states and counties. While spending time with the people in her book - and her own loved ones living in red states and counties, she found surprise, warning, opportunity and hope. In retelling those stories, she hopes to build empathy and dialogue without shying away from telling hard truths about the politicization of religion and the prevalence of Christian Nationalism in churches across America.
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