These ashes

I stood at the back end of the 18-wheeler, watching with an ache in my chest as the delivery driver slowly lifted a long box onto a set of rollers. He rolled the box down the driveway, and into the garage. Then he pulled a box cutter out of his pocket and said that he needed me to make an inspection. 

“I should warn you,” I said. “Inside that box is a casket. My stepfather is dying and my mother ordered a special casket for him.” 

It was a simple oak casket with a cross on the top. It had been cut, sanded, stained and prayed over by Trappist monks in Iowa. I didn’t want to inspect it. I didn’t want to put my stepfather in it. I didn’t want him to die.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. If my church isn’t closed due to icy roads, on Wednesday, I will stand in front of a priest. He will dip his thumb into the ashes and draw a cross on my forehead while saying,

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

The ashes are a sign of my mortality. 

They always mix with the oil from the pores in my forehead and make the cross look more like a smudge than a cross. Last year, I stopped for milk at Braum’s after the Ash Wednesday service and the girl behind the counter notified me that I had something on my head. She had never heard of Ash Wednesday. But she was right about my needing a cleaning.

The ashes are a sign of penitence. 

“Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have sinned against you,” we pray on our knees during the service, naming our sins.

 The day my stepfather’s casket arrived, I told the delivery driver that my mother had ordered a special casket. I watched as he cut the box around three edges so that he could lift the top and see inside. As he cut, I felt my body tense up. Was I going to start crying in front of the delivery man? Was I going to faint? Was I going to be able to say anything at all? He opened the box and looked. I looked with him. Then he shook his head back and forth and smiled. “What’s so special about THAT?” he said. And I didn’t cry or faint or go mute. I laughed. I laughed because it was true. It was a simple casket. A simple casket with a simple little cross on top of it.

On Ash Wednesday, before the priest imposes the ashes with the sign of the cross upon the heads of the parishioners, he prays this prayer:

“Almighty God, you have created us from the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be for us a symbol of our mortality and a sign of our penitence, that we may remember that it is by your grace alone that we receive the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.” 

We stored my stepfather’s casket in our garage for several months. Every time I got in the minivan to go somewhere, I could see the thick cardboard box on the floor. Usually, I distracted myself by turning up the music as I backed out. But sometimes, I stared at the box and cried. 

The ashes are a sign that I am grieving. I am grieving all that is dead and broken, in the world and in myself. 

The ashes are a sign that I need help.

The ashes are a sign that I am at the mercy of the One who formed a human out of the dust of the earth, the One who conquered death to give me life.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return. 

Lord, have mercy.