This year, Ash Wednesday looked like parking in a 12-minute spot on the corner of Bay and Montecito and walking up to the front step of our church building.
“We’re doing walk-up ashes this year!” Father Mauricio had stated cheerfully a day or two before, as if a thirty-second interaction without human contact, between a shield of fabric masks and plastic face guards and pairs of sunglasses could actually be considered normal.
As I walked towards him, he merely nodded at me. Gone was the joy and cheerfulness from our previous conversation, a result of Ash Wednesday’s darkness, I suppose. I wondered if hope still lived in his body, if I just couldn’t see it because I couldn’t really see hope on his face.
But I could hear his voice.
“Hello, Cara!” The man often talks in exclamation points, I’d noticed.
I walked timidly towards him. Was I allowed to come within six feet of him? What was I supposed to do, when the instruction of hymns and prayers, sitting and kneeling hadn’t been laid out for me over the course of a forty-five-minute service? He beckoned me to come up, directing me to a spot in front of him.
I stood on the bottom step and closed my eyes. I felt a brush against my forehead, not of a gloved finger but of wetted cotton atop the end of a stick. A car alarm sprang to life in the background, the blare of its horn insistent, menacing.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
And that was it. A second or two later, a couple of construction workers walked past us and Father Mauricio extended a greeting in Spanish. Maybe he blessed the men as well, I couldn’t tell. We locked eyes with them and with one another. We nodded our heads. I snapped a photo on my cell phone to commemorate the day, not because I tend to document everything in pictures, but because I didn’t want to forget this year of walk-up ashes.
After all, it’s felt like a year of walk-up ashes.
Many of us are exhausted, that much is true. If we were in survival mode three weeks into the pandemic, we are now firmly rooted in a place far beyond mere survival—living a freaky dystopian existence, starring in a role we never asked for in the first place.
In the United States, 500,000 are dead from Covid-19. In Texas and throughout parts of the South, the effects of hellacious winter storms continue with hundreds of thousands of people still without access to water and electricity.
Where is hope when hope is most needed, when hope becomes the only thing we crave?
We’re weary, spent, done. And here, the season of Lent begs us enter in; here, Lent invites our dog-tired souls take a step back and examine our lives and maybe rest a little bit too.
Here, a thirty-second dust-to-dust interaction reminds our human selves of the beauty and complexity and pain we carry within us. My friend Micha Boyett wrote on Wednesday, “…that though we are ashes, that’s not the entire story. God is doing something new, inviting us to see what ashes can become.”
She wondered what ashes will become when we already feel at the end of our rope? What will hope look like when it already feels like hope is lost, but we are reminded that “…something stronger is stirring the ashes, kindling the bit of embers that still remain?”
Micha, whom I’ve quoted a couple of times now, has always had a thing for the season of Lent. For nearly a decade, I’ve looked to her for translation, to remind me of goodness and beauty and truth when I have a hard time seeing it there.
This year is no different, when Micha (and a host of others) remind us that hope is still there, a hope that tell us our ashes aren’t the whole story.
In that way, my prayer is this: as we trudge forward in the season of Lent, might tangible realities of this ashes-to-ashes hope be ours as well.