Remember That Dust is Filthy And Carries Disease

A reflection on Ash Wednesday after the first Sunday in Lent may be a bit late to the party, especially since Cindy Koch already wrote a good one. But there’s something about last week I can’t get out of my head.

In my area, most of the population is either Lutheran or Catholic, so the imposition of ashes is a well-known rite. However, if many of the Lutheran churches are in the practice, it is relatively recent—I suspect there was a generational holdover of avoiding things that were “too Catholic,” but as I like to say, Why should the Catholics be the only ones with cool liturgy?

Anyway, we are ones that impose ashes at the outset of lent, leading into an extended period of silent repentance, then confident absolution and delicious Sacrament. Before the service, I take a small baggie of coal-black powder, mix it with some olive oil, and with a somber unsmiling demeanor enclosed in a black alb I make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of everyone who comes forward. “Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return,” I say, my thumb greasy with ashy detritus, olive oil, and human sweat. It is an uncomfortably intimate reminder of humanity’s finitude, of depraved brokenness, and the black will take days to fade from under my thumbnail, no matter how many times I wash afterwards. It is a reminder of sin’s consequence, a mark of condemnation, a rite of death. It is intentional despair over sin hidden in the besmirched visage of a crucifix. Remember that you are but dust: you deserve death and are going to die.

So no, I didn’t wear a mask.

That’s what I can’t stop thinking about: “COVID-friendly” ashes. This year’s imposition of ashes, like so many churchly functions and rites, has undergone adaptations in many places. A lot of Catholic dioceses this year sprinkledashes instead of impressing them with the thumb. It sounds messy, but it is “COVID-friendly,” avoiding physical contact and (incidentally) that pesky symbol of a cross that is supposed to remind you of Christ’s depraved humiliation. Another (non-denom) church near me hilariously offered ashes in the form of a temporary tattoo. Their website literally said, “They look awesome and are COVID conscious!”

I will not here begin to debate the merits or demerits of so many “COVID-friendly” adaptations at church (even though I believe with every ounce of my well-informed soul that, while good-intentioned, they have thankfully turned out to be largely unnecessary and a near-complete waste of energy). But I will say this: if you or your church made a “COVID-friendly” concession for the imposition of ashes, you have missed the point of the rite—and of Lent—entirely. You have brought an umbrella to a hurricane. You have worn shoes in a swimming pool. You have bedecked yourself in a bullet-proof vest before a firing squad. You have gone to a rite of death trying to avoid death. Why bother going at all? Why not install a screen door on a submarine? Why not bail a sinking ship with a sieve? Why not skydive with a fishnet parachute? Why not order a burger made out of plants?

Again, I am not debating the myriad “COVID-friendly” church practices here, but only and specifically Ash Wednesday. The imposition of ashes is not a sacrament—it offers no forgiveness, and no hope beyond the shape of the tarnish. It is not required, it is not commanded, it is (like most liturgy) a tool to assist you in your Lenten piety. It is supposed to be filthy, it is supposed to stain, it is supposed to be unsettling. If this year’s close contact was somehow more dangerous than normal, GOOD! That makes the rite that much more meaningful.

“Repent!” the ashes cry. “You’re going to die! Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.