There’s a widely held opinion among my friends who are clergy that Ash Wednesday ashes should be removed rather promptly following imposition to avoid presenting oneself has haughty for being “more faithful” than those who do not have their ashes (at all or yet). While I certainly understand the sentiment, especially after hearing stories of those affected by such haughty stare-downs of the ashed faithful when their Ash Wednesday service was in the evening, I wonder if so quickly removing our ashes keeps us from recognizing, or focusing upon, their significance.
Today, a full 24 hours from our Ash Wednesday service, I happened to look down at my right hand and noticed a faint tinge of black under my right thumbnail. After probably 10-20 hand washes, this little bit of ash persisted in the deepest recesses of my nail bed. Annoyed, my first reaction was to grab the nail cleaner and attempt to remove the lingering evidence of my participation in the service, but right as I picked up the basket of nail supplies, I paused. Not more than a day before, my pastor and colleague Daniel Glaze had read part of a book to our Ash Wednesday congregants, reminding us that ashes are sticky things for a reason – they remind us of something important:
“In her book Traveling Mercies, the author Anne Lamott tells the story of scattering the ashes of a loved one. ‘When I opened the box of ashes, I thought they would be nice and soft and well, ashy, like the ones with which they anoint your forehead on Ash Wednesday. But they’re gritty, as if they’re bones or something.’
She continues … ‘I tossed a handful of my friend’s ashes into the water way out past the Golden Gate Bridge during the day. They’re impossible to let go of entirely. They stick to things, to your fingers, your sweater… And they blow every which way. We tried to strew them off the side of the boat romantically, with seals barking from the rocks on shore, under a true-blue sky, but the ashes would not cooperate.
‘They rarely do,’ she says. ‘It’s frustrating if you are hoping to have a happy ending, or at least a little closure, a made-for-tv moment when you toss them into the air and they flutter and disperse. They don’t. They cling, they haunt. They get in your hair, in your eyes, in your clothes.’ Reality is often grungy, isn’t it?
…Lent is anything but reverent and tidy. ”
I resolved to leave the black smudge under my nail until some future, final hand washing removed it. I cannot remove my humanity no matter how hard I try, and neither should I! Christ himself chose to don the ashes of humanity to come live among us. How much more should I appreciate my ashy existence in this world!
I figure there’s probably a happy medium to be struck between how long we wear our ashes to remember who we are, versus how long we wear them to remind others we’ve been to church. But, for the immediate washers of their ashes and those who wear their ashes from morning until their pillowcases are grimy, perhaps we shouldn’t worry about when we (or any one else) wipes it off. Instead, we should simply use those smudgy, ashy crosses (or nail grime) to remind ourselves in this season of Lent that we are indeed dust, ashes that stick around and are messy and imperfect – and that sometimes no matter how many washes we undertake, we’ll have it stuck under a nail for hours and hours. Yet God remains faithful to God’s children, mess, ash, and all.
I am eternally grateful for divine mercy for all of God’s ash-covered children, my dingy thumb and self included.