Last year on Ash Wednesday, I innocently wrote:
Friends, to be reminded of our earthen nature is sobering yet laced in hope. It binds us to the creation and one another. And just as all of us are dust and to dust all of us will return, God makes beautiful things out of dust...and carbon ink...and all of us. On this Ash Wednesday, remember your dusty, ashen self is so very loved and good. May this word carry you for the 40 Days of Lent, too.
I was only a few months removed from my first tattoo and a week or so away from my second. I was reflecting on the artist’s reminder that the ink is made of carbon, the same stuff we are, he shared. At the time of that post, I thought the art on my left tricep was a minor amount of discomfort for a lifelong, humanizing symbol of my fragility and finitude. It was therapeutic. I also thought Ash Wednesday 2020 was merely the beginning of a 40-day liturgical pilgrimage of confession and lament that culminated in Holy Week and Easter.
Lament is hardly a strong enough word.
This year, the reminder of our origins in the dust of the earth needs very little repeating. The Lenten road ahead may be something we have already felt accustomed to for the last 12 months of isolated struggle. We have had more than enough reminders of death, dying, and the temporal nature of our earthly existence. The numbers do not lie. The statistics are haunting. The Lenten journey of 2020 has extended well past the liturgically prescribed forty-days and I want out, off, and some good old fashioned ordinary time with all the green paraments.
A few ministry colleagues even wrote this may not be the year to linger in Lent.
For some, maybe not.
Yet I recently read the words of poet, Thich Nhat Hanh, which unintentionally helped me find the sacred goodness in Ash Wednesday in such a time as this:
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart could be left open
the door of compassion.
Yes. Ash Wednesday is the regular calling of ourselves by our truest of names.
Ash Wednesday is when we gather our cries and laughter, joys and pain, together at once, in those clay bowls filled with the remnants of last year's palms. Ash Wednesday is when we remember that to be called by our common name, ash, is to be awakened to our collective humanity as the door to compassion opens wider still. We may actually need Ash Wednesday all the more in light of what feels like perpetual Lenten trauma.
The second tattoo I received last year, gregorēite /γρηγορεῖτε, means stay awake, similar to Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem and the words of Christ (Mark 13). Little did I know then how much I would need this carbon reminder on my right forearm. Little did I know how much the dust of our humanity would rise up in the next 12 months, like those Sunday feast days that are respites from the Lenten fast, and open so many doors of compassion in the midst of the shared despair.
I am not sure there has ever been a time in my life when to be called dust has felt so heavy and hard. I resist it.
I am not sure there has ever been a time in my life when I have needed to cling to this liturgical word any tighter. I need it.
Maybe that's because it is our truest of names. May this name lead us both to walk through and open wide the doors of compassion.
"The LORD knows
how we were made;
the LORD remembers
that we are dust."