Behold the elephant in the room.
Banksy, the street graffiti artist, had this elephant in the room as part of his first US exhibit (Los Angeles, 2006). Nothing revives an overdone metaphor like taking it literally, I suppose.
I feel like that’s what Ash Wednesday does, too. The stark visibility of the ashes calls attention to realities that we are usually comfortable to leave unmentioned.
Like the reality that all of us participate as both perpetrators and victims in the world’s brokenness, and that we need to account for it in order to experience renewal.
Like the reality that being human has a 100% mortality rate.
It’s fitting that we “impose” ashes on foreheads. Ashes come with a message that is an imposition indeed: we are frail, vulnerable, and in glaring need of help. Try taking that to heart in the middle of your daily attempts to be productive and significant.
On the way home from church last Wednesday evening, with my forehead freshly imposed with ashes, I felt the stares of my fellow subway riders. Quick glances from some, sustained curiosity from others. Despite having been the imposer of ashes all day long at the hospital, I suddenly felt very conspicuous. It had been a lot easier to tell other people that they were dust than it was to feel it myself. I was distracted by worries about what others were thinking—what if they didn’t know what Ash Wednesday was? Should I tell them? What if they knew exactly what the ashes were but saw them as simply a masochistic practice of a religion preoccupied with guilt? What if they thought it was simply a prideful mark of pious observance? And what if they thought I was Catholic, like most of the ash-wearers in Boston?!
All beside the point, of course. Whatever name or attributes any of us gives to Ash Wednesday’s elephant in the room is less important than the fact that we are summoned to examine it honestly. For me, by the time I finally stepped off the subway, the discomfort of feeling so exposed had given way to a deeper appreciation for the kind of humility I want God to cultivate in me and in all of us. Not humility in the sense of humiliation for all the ways we’ve gone wrong and fallen short, but humility in the sense of our humus-ness, the healthy understanding of how utterly earthy our material existence is. A humility that is better poised to grasp how the breath of God’s spirit, breathed into our dusty human forms, emboldens us to be and to do more than we ever thought possible. We’re made for so much more. Not because of what we’re made of, but because of who our Maker is.
More than my subway ride, though, the moment from last Wednesday that has lingered most on my mind was one of the many hospital scenes into which I entered to give ashes to staff, patients, and family members. In this case it was a newly diagnosed ten-year-old leukemia patient and his mother. Reclining in bed, he played on his iPad and reluctantly looked up, upon his mother’s insistence, when I moved to place ashes on the front of his bald head.
“God made you out of the dust,” I said, “and God loves you so, so much. You are beloved dust.”
I paused. “This sure wasn’t where you planned on receiving your ashes this year, was it?”
They looked at each other and shook their heads.
“I think the hospital is still a good place to do ashes though,” I ventured, “…I think they fit in here. The ashes say that God cares about our bodies, and that God knows it can be so hard to live in bodies. God understands how hard it is to live in a body because God did it, too. God gets it.”
The mother’s vigorous nods quickly melted into sobs. Her son looked up from his iPad repeatedly, seeming neither scared nor bothered by his mom’s weeping, just noticing it.
I hope that the elephant named Potentially Life-Threatening Childhood Cancer wasn’t the only one in the room that afternoon. I hope that we also gave some credence to the elephant named Loving God Who Has Mysteriously Already Healed Us From The Power of Death And Who Will Never Leave Us Nor Forsake Us.
It’s a crowded room. Welcome to Lent.