I stand in front of the priest, waiting. Grinding a thumb into a container full of black dust, she reaches up and makes two marks on my head, one down, the other over.
“Remember you are dust,” she says, “and to dust you shall return.”
She squats slightly, reaching her hand out to my young son, who is standing next to me holding my hand.
“May I put something on your head?” she asks.
“No,” he responds, ever a toddler, but then he leans forward.
She makes the downward mark on his forehead swiftly.
“Remember, you are dust,” she says, but then he interrupts, “No, I’m Eli.”
Smiling, she marks the crossbar.
“…And to dust you shall return.”
We turn to walk back to the place where we had been kneeling, the members in the pews smiling at the antics of the youngest congregant, who is rubbing his head and asking loudly why we have rocket ships on our faces.
I kneel again, breathing in the comforting must of the church. I pick up the prayer book, while he, in turn, picks up the toys the church keeps in the back of the nave. Our priest calls it a “pray ground.”
He chatters, sometimes loudly. My wife keeps his attention and volume in check while I join in reciting the penitential psalm. I know it by memory from daily recitation in the Byzantine Rite, but I have to resort to the psalter here because of the differences in translation.
Still, my heart stretches out toward heaven, aching with the exquisite familiarity of the words.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; * in your great compassion blot out my offenses.”
I know it well enough that I can meditate on other things. My knees ache on the kneeler, so I shift.
I think about how a few years ago, as we approached Holy Week, I commented that we’d had a long Lent.
It’s only 40 days, I think, but that year I understood the symbolism of the 40 years in the wilderness.
The next year was also long, I remember, then the next. It was never the fasting from food or getting up for extra prayers. There was always some darkness, something telling me I would not make it to the end.
One year Holy Week was the closest I’ve come to understanding the purging fires of Hades. Watching your wife nearly die in a bathtub, praying for God, for Christ, the Spirit, Mary, St. George – anyone, damn it — who can hear to fix this, forces a dark clarity on faith. God was there, but we still went to the hospital. We lost the baby anyway.
“ For behold, you look for truth deep within me, * and will make me understand wisdom secretly. Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; * wash me, and I shall be clean indeed. Make me hear of joy and gladness, * that the body you have broken may rejoice.”
The Lent my body broke was when my faith broke as well. We’d had two years of crises, hospital stays, emergency bills, the kinds of ordinary things that pile up until you can’t think.
We’d been running on fumes forever. Then I got sick. After that, I was constantly aware of the outline of my body, where I begin and end in this world.
God, I knew, was everywhere present and filling all things, yet I could not pray.
I had been faithful, I had accepted the revelation in time and space that was given to us in Jesus Christ. But I was also angry. It was too much. When someone foolishly told me that God would never give me more than I could handle, I laughed in their face.
I felt in the moment that if I spoke I would dissolve in his Presence. God was there, and I felt like Job: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
God stood there with Job, and I believe he stood there with me in the narthex while the rest of the church celebrated the resurrection service in the nave.
“I am large enough for your anger,” he said. “It does not hurt me. Feel it if you must.”
And then: “Listen, hear the Holy Gospel.”
I realized it was not God speaking anymore, but a priest. He sang the story in a deep baritone, telling of how Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb only to be greeted with an earthquake and an empty grave.
Too much, they must have thought, too much.
But then the angel: “He is risen from the dead. He is going before you.”
Not long after, Christ himself met them. “I am with you always,” he said. The Gospel says some doubted him, but he promised it nonetheless.
I was one of them, I knew, doubting him even though I could see the empty tomb, even though he was standing before them.
“Christ,” I cried. “My bones wax. I have watered my couch with tears. I believe. Help my unbelief.”
“That is enough for now,” he nodded.
I had not made a good confession, but I approached the chalice, expecting a coal, something sweet in the mouth and burning in the belly.
I had silently prayed the familiar words along with the priest’s baritone intonation, finding my tongue, at last, to assert, “Again we offer unto Thee this reasonable and bloodless worship, and we ask Thee, and pray Thee, and supplicate Thee: Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered.”
At the chalice, I muttered my Christian name, received the Body and Blood and knew that the third member of the Holy Trinity had come to remind me of who I was. I was not in the Holy Land, but I was promised it.
In the present, I feel the ashes on my head. They remind me that one day I will die. The psalm is winding down.
“Deliver me from death, O God, * and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation. Open my lips, O Lord, * and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice; * but you take no delight in burnt-offerings. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
I know that Lent will be long. Life is a long Lent. Yes, we break and feast and look forward to our promise, but the wilderness is where we live. Moses did not see the promised land until the Transfiguration, when he ministered to Christ in his preparation to suffer.
Yet he did, in the end, see it. And when he did, he saw it with the King of Glory.
Behind me, the baby chatters. He is waiting to exchange the sign of peace with every person there. It’s his favorite part of every service.
Life is not long for him yet. I pray for him then, that the ashes will not be a reminder of death, but a reminder that when he one day reaches it, the Holy Trinity will meet him at the empty tomb.