Monday, February 27, 2017
The Importance of Ashes
My reflections on the importance of wearing ashes this year. I wrote this last week, but finally felt strong enough to share it today. Warning: Contains reflections on our pregnancy loss.
I am typically a cheerful person. When I go through a dark time, I can always find that happiness and joy at my core. You might say I am seriously cheerful, not goofy cheerful, but I usually can find a way to see any glass as “capable” of being full. So, each year, Ash Wednesday is typically a sobering reminder of our humanity and capability of being empty, so that Christ might fill our hearts once again.
This year is different. Lately, I have been sad at my core. Sure, there is the state of our country. There is the state of our world. This article is not about politics, but feel free to read it that way.
We lost our baby in January, I developed severe preeclampsia, and I had to go through labor for a child who had already died. It was the worst experience of my life. I held tightly to my husband’s hand. I held tightly to Jesus, constantly seeing him on the cross suffering alongside me, and several times, I thought of Simeon’s words to Mary, the mother of Jesus, which were just too recent in my memory, “And a sword will pierce your soul.”
More than ever, I became aware of my mortality in a very real and sobering way. If it were not for my talented Doctor and nurses and their use of modern medicine, and the grace of God, Robbie might have lost both of us that day. And I know that possibility was ever present in our hearts throughout the night.
In the coming days I clearly felt the emptiness of my womb which heightened the silence in the room. The ironic and painful fullness of my breasts only more vividly illuminated the emptiness of my arms. My overflowing tears clearly echoed the emptiness of my heart.
Now, I am standing a week away from Ash Wednesday and feeling like a simple cross on my forehead is not enough to show the real pain I feel inside. Where are the days of covering ourselves from head to toe in ashes and literally ripping our clothes. I’d like to rip all of my maternity clothes in half, but my logical self stops me, because then I would have nothing to wear today and nothing to wear when I do become pregnant again. My emotional self wants to do it anyway. My emotional self says, “Good. Then everyone will see my nakedness and know how deeply sad I am.”
All of this pain, for a child I never met, a child whose laugh I never heard, a child whose cry I could never answer.
More than ever, I recognize that when I receive those ashes on Wednesday, they will be an outer reflection of a real pain that exists in this world, not just in my heart, but many others.
How many other mothers feel sorrow for the loss of their children, whether unborn, 8, 24, 45, 64 or more? What about the fathers, the grandparents, the aunts and uncles, the brothers and sisters, the children, the grandchildren and more. Death separates us and has the capacity to keep us isolated in our grief, our blame, our shame, and our regret. Sure, we could continue in our old tradition and cover ourselves with a vivid reflection of our singular pain.
Instead, we Christians choose to receive a mark of solidarity. The ashes in the shape of a cross on our hand or our forehead do not symbolize our singular sin, or our singular grief. They do not mark us as better than others or separate from our fellow human beings. They symbolize the mortality of humanity, and Christ’s suffering for all of our pain. Christ suffered for the pain we cause on one another and for the pain of living and dying in this world. He suffered so that he would know our brokenness, and take on any punishment that we deserve, so that one day we could experience true wholeness and freedom from pain.
As sad as I am, those ashes will declare my recognition that I am not alone, you are not alone, and great pain exists in this world.
As defeated as I feel, the cross will declare my belief, that death does not have the final word. One day pain will end, and we will discover the wholeness of life and love. If we are lucky enough, we will get to experience that in this life, not because we are lucky enough to have a glass that is always full or even half full, but because we have experienced how truly empty the glass can be, and we are brave enough to let someone else fill that cup, even if only for a moment.