Sometimes I wonder if Ash Wednesday is my favorite day of the church calendar. Is that sacrilege? Theologically, I guess Christmas and Easter are my favorite? But experientially, it’s Ash Wednesday.
I almost skipped this year. Ash Wednesday was also Mary’s birthday, and I couldn’t see how to fit in a service. But then I remembered that I could just find a faithful church nearby and slip in while the kids were at school.
The noon Ash Wednesday service is like the Early Bird Special, and while I have trembled at the poignancy of watching my children’s smooth foreheads being scored with ashes, I felt a visceral awareness of mortality watching the slow procession of old people walking to receive their mark. I imagined a few of them as they might have looked only decades ago, trying hard to remember that we are composed of ourselves at every age.
One of the old women I watched had thinned, feathery white hair, cut close to her head, resting around her ears. Her skin was pale, and she wore a loose, silky, royal blue blouse. Another old woman had longer, thicker hair, injected plump lips, tinted cheeks, chunky jewelry. She looked a bit plastic, and she was. Another old woman had dyed burgundy hair that flipped out slightly at her neck. I don’t remember what she wore, but I liked her bold, eff-it hair choice.
There was also a man. He wasn’t old but middle-aged. He was black, and his body was malformed. His hands were deeply cleft down the middles and looked reptilian. His legs appeared unequal in length, which threw his whole body off symmetry. His shoulders and elbow joints formed sharp angles, and his arms hung long and uneven. He wore a t-shirt and baggy pants. I’m still fascinated by how opposite he appeared in every way to the rest of the people in the room.
One thing I felt during the service, which I have felt several times since Chris died, but earlier on, was what I can only describe as a sense of embarrassment. An embarrassment of being mortal. I felt embarrassed in front of Chris in the service.
There is an almost infinite distance between me and Chris now: he in his glory; me in my skin that’s getting crepey where my arms bend, me in my stupid boots that I’m so proud of, me with my fingertips that smell like stale cigarette smoke. Everything about me–my hair that’s just dead cells, my worries, my distractions–everything is so shallow, so passing. So much of what I’m mindful of will slough off and blow away. I felt foolish in my existence. And I also felt slighted, to not have been brought into glory myself, with Chris. To be left here to be foolish.
I know it won’t be long. I saw the wrinkled faces of those women, and I could see in their eyes how recently their skin had been smooth, taut. In light of their future glory, they looked no older on Wednesday than they did 50 years ago. In light of their future glory, their hobbled procession was no more labored than the miles they once were able to run. In light of future glory, we are all the same with the same percentage of dying and broken parts, halfway ash already.
It’s humbling. It is embarrassing, and it probably should be. There’s an inherent foolishness in being a mortal creature on this earth. There’s also freedom, too, in light of our future glory. I think there’s a very real sense in which it’s all comin’ out in the wash. For now, I may just keep glorying in my cool boots, because that’s what I have to glory in at the moment. Maybe later I’ll dye my white hair the color of wine or get filler in my lips. I’m not trying to say that nothing is sacred. I think what I’m trying to say is: He knows our frame. He wants us to know it too. And also I’m saying: No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him.