I went to my first Ash Wednesday service last week. I grew up non-liturgical and though I’d kept — or attempted to keep — Lenten fasts or extras for a few years now, I’d never gone to a service. As usual in this new life in St. Louis, some of the service was in a different language. In this case it was Spanish, which I can pronounce okay from high school, but can’t converse or comprehend that well.
The officiant talked about what the ashes meant — an acknowledgement that we are helpless without Jesus, that we are at the ends of our ropes.
I don’t know for sure what the man who put the ashes on my forehead said, because he said it in Spanish. But the liturgy I checked said it goes “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We sang “Jesus I come” with verses alternating in English and Spanish, and I broke down by the time I got back to the pew. I huddled in to my husband and wept. I hate vulnerability, both admitting it and feeling it.
I’m not a person whose first impulse is to act or speak publicly. I don’t want you to notice me in person. Though I’m sure no one was really looking at me, to go up, get marked on my face, and walk back to my pew fighting tears, was excruciating. Not to mention the exposure of being a pastor’s wife who is shaking crying, even if we’re in the back row, and it’s not our church.
I’m definitely planning on participating again next year if I’m around a church that offers a service, I’m kinda relieved that it only happens once a year.
[And I want to note that this was an evening service so I wasn’t walking around all day with ashes on my forehead. I’m no Tony Reali (or the grocery store stocker I saw when I ran to Schnucks that morning).]
I couldn’t remember exactly what the pastor said that struck me particularly — I just remember being struck, so I asked him to email me his homily. When they read off an ipad, you feel confident that they’ll have words to share. This was what got me: “…God using ashes as a sign of grief — a sign of lament — a sign of repentance that says, ‘I have come to the end of my rope and I have no hope apart from the mercy and compassion of Jesus.’”
That. . . that reminded me of the ashes I use for mourning. Yes, I’m totally talking about cigarettes. I was a self-rightous smoking hater for years, until I realized in college that most of the people I loved the best smoked — and they loved Jesus. I was in therapy, too, and I started to smoke with my friends. And for me, smoking — feeling the hit from the nicotine — brought me peace that was very hard to find elsewhere. I was letting go of the rules and safeguards that I had accidentally clung to instead of Jesus and smoking was a thing that helped me let go. Jesus was enough.
When we lost our first baby, I grieved with cigarettes. After all, I wasn’t pregnant any more. The rhythm — inhaling, exhaling, tapping, watching the ashes fall — grounded me, it set me free to feel the feelings of loss without coming apart. Without coming apart too much. And when Roy smoked with me, even though he thought it was gross at the time, he came down and joined me and I wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t as hard any more.
I don’t smoke a lot. I don’t want any of you lovely readers (all six of you *kiss emoji*) to read this, start smoking and get lung cancer. I don’t smoke around my kids, and Roy doesn’t love it when I go outside after dark in our neighborhood. I really have to work out logistics if I want to smoke.
But it turns out I can’t smoke without talking to Jesus. I breathe in and out and think “Jesus I need you / Jesus I can’t do this without you.” Obviously, these are things that I can say without cigarettes, and I do, but there’s power in my unofficial sacrament that deepens the meaning. That nicotine hit, the peace I didn’t have without it — man, I need Jesus.
Today I got to smoke in the morning, in the sunlight. I thought about the pastor’s words. We are the ash that blows away. The wind blew my cigarette ash away as I prayed “I have no hope apart from your mercy and compassion, Jesus.”
I am the ash that blows away. I mourn my insufficiency. I’m not Jesus, even though I wish I were. I’m not the perfect mom, wife, or house keeper. I can’t save our neighborhood from the spiritual darkness or its outer blight — even if I can start a garden. I’m not enough.
And it’s not magical, but the nicotine hits my brain and like the smell of pho or the way communion with real wine hits you, I’m reminded again, that Jesus, who I am not, LOVES ME. He’s with me. He died for me. He rose again and saving things is on his agenda, and he’ll let me help. And maybe one day he’ll sanctify me into discipline that makes our house slightly less gross, that our kids will look in the cupboards for clean plates first, not the dishwasher. Well, that’s crap and might take medicine, not just sanctification. What I really need is a heart for service, that sees menial tasks as worthy — and that calls for them to be honored by all.
Until that day, I’ll keep having my own mini-Lent services, sneaking out to the back porch after the kids are asleep, practicing the liturgy of breathe in / breath out / tap / Jesus I can’t do it without you.