A week ago, many of us participated in a holy ritual–Ash Wednesday. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Drawing the ash cross on another person is somber and sacred and poignant . . . and potentially a logistical nightmare.
I did not grow up observing Ash Wednesday, and my first year as pastor I was at a bit of a loss. Where do I get ashes? What do I mix with them? How do I reach everyone’s forehead? So I borrowed some ecumenical ashes and did the best I could.
Then I heard that you are supposed to burn palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday and use those ashes to make the mark of the cross. The former English teacher in me loves the symbolism of this–these palm leaves that signify the joy of Jesus’ earthly life even as they portend his death are saved and transformed into the ashes we use in a blessing that brings life as it reminds us of our deaths.
Unfortunately, the actual person in me apparently cannot burn palm branches. I tried. And I ended up with awkward, sooty chunks of plant and a very smoky church building. (A friend has since informed me that I should burn the palm leaves outside, which is a good tip.)
I still have dried palm leaves in a cabinet at church, but every year I just pull out the same little vial of ecumenical ashes. I don’t even know who burned what to make them, but they seem to work fine.
My ash incompetence is not something I dwell on, but it does feel like a minor pastor fail. Which is why I was delighted to read a thread on the Young Clergy Women page about other pastors’ “ash disasters.”
That’s the term Erica Schemper used to describe a situation that would warrant a trip to the drug store to buy black eye shadow. Erica suggests, “in the secrecy of your church office, chip that little cake of makeup out into your ash bowl or whatever, add a little olive oil.”
And before you get too horrified by the prospect of eye shadow instead of ashes, consider that at least most make-up is safe to put on human skin.
Stacy Sergent shares the following tip: “DON’T use the soil from a nearby potted plant! That’s what one of our hospital chaplains did when we ran out of ashes one year, and the soil had fertilizer in it. A nurse had an allergic reaction to the fertilizer and had to check in to the ER!”
So, to recap: burned palm branches: YES, if you can manage it; potting soil: NO!; eye shadow: in a pinch.
Which is what Jenny Replogle and her rector found themselves in doing Ashes to Go in the town square. The fireplace ashes the rector had brought were not working well and Jenny remembered reading the eye shadow tip from Emily. So, Jenny writes, the rector headed “off to CVS – in his cassock. He got there, realized he couldn’t remember what makeup item he needed, and, standing in his vestments, asks, ‘Where can I get some mascara?!’ Luckily, he did find black eye shadow. When he returned with it, he showed me and asked if he had bought the right thing, at which point I said – ‘Oh, I just remembered the other part of that post which said eye shadow WITHOUT glitter.’ Oops. We mixed it in anyway, and had lovely dark ashes with a hint of glitter, which were sparkly on a beautiful sunny day. . . . a sign that even in the darkness of death, the light of Christ shines through.”
And that is what this season of Lent is about, right? The darkness and the light.
I briefly considered giving up the humor column for Lent. In addition to being a somber part of the Christian year, it was during Lent last year that my father went into the hospital unexpectedly and died just two days after being diagnosed with leukemia/lymphoma. It feels like I should just be sad and serious for awhile.
But then I remember a silly joke my dad liked to tell. I read the Psalm: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills.” And I read about glitter in the eyeshadow/ashes.
The grief and the joy, the soot and the beauty, the death and the life, the human and the divine–they swirl around and within each other all the time. And during Lent we are called to open our eyes and our hearts just a bit wider to receive it all.
*With thanks to Erica Schemper, Stacy Sergent, and Jenny Replogle for permission to share their stories.