Hands—covered with ash and oil. The smell of smoke—heavy in the ocean breeze.
Last year, as I burned palm fronds in preparation for Ash Wednesday services on the island of Bali, I was reminded that ashes don’t just represent the end. For Balinese Hindus, the cremation ceremony performed for deceased loved ones is a beginning. The body is burned until there is but a tiny bit of white ash left on the ground. The family retrieves the ashes in ceremonial fashion and carefully transports them to the ocean. The first tears are finally shed and those who litter the shoreline wave goodbye as the ashes float away. It’s the cycle of life—begun again.
At a time when so many focus on mortality and our eventual end to earthly bodies Ash Wednesday has become, for me, more about the ashes from which we each came into existence; the shared dirt from which we were molded and made. Three and a half years sharing life in a traditional Balinese Hindu family compound, a plot of land no bigger than the average American front yard, 27 people who were once strangers now like family—Ash Wednesday—my hands were covered in our shared beginning, our common humanity.
From these ashes, this dust, the dirt the Creator fashioned a people to be in community. The Holy One breathed life into nonexistence and asked them to live together and learn from one another. Half a world away in what most considered a foreign land I had life breathed into me. From these people I learned how to celebrate our shared cosmic genetics without so much as a second thought. I learned how to care for a deceased loved one in a manner I can only imagine God intended for us all. I learned what it felt like for a people to embrace all of me, well before they knew if I would accept all of them or even before I accepted all of myself. The people of Bali breathed life deep into my soul.
Ash Wednesday will never be the same. As a minister, I make the sign of the cross over and over on the forehead of my parishioners hoping, praying, longing for them to see the full spectrum of existence that we all share. As I say the words and to dust you shall return I can’t help but want to put a halt to the service and ask everyone in attendance: “But what about the right now? What about the gift you have been given in one another right now?”
What is it to have life “and have it abundantly” if it’s not in communion with the beauty of all of God’s diverse creation? What is it to come from ash and return to ash if there is not life to speak of in the in between? What is it to know the end is coming if the beginning has never really started?
I saved the ash I made that day and brought it back to America with me. To this day it’s like ink—if I get it on me for any reason it takes days to get it off my skin. I imagine that is the way it should be. The sign of the cross emblazoned for a day on our foreheads should be seared deep into our hearts for a lifetime. It should remind us of blood that runs through shared veins and roots that extend from one common tree of life. The sign of the cross should sound like our hearts beating in rhythmic fashion with all of God’s creation.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust—the breath of life breathed deep into the soul of creation from One Source. Ash Wednesday will never be the same.