The priest sweeps a crusty smudge of dirt onto my face. Ash scrapes noisily against my skin, the sound slightly unsettling my stomach. He tells me I started as dust and will soon end there, as if I need the reminder. The blue of his eyes spills like water from a tap before slipping from my gaze to settle on his thumb doing its ritual business of branding my body. I stare awkwardly into his chest, at his white vestment and purple sash. When his thumb lifts from my skin, I turn and walk back to my pew.
As I walk down the shadowy aisle, I consider the homily, centered on the second reading: St. Paul’s letter urging the Corinthians to be ambassadors for Christ. You aren’t entitled to God’s grace, even if God does hand it out freely, Paul seems to be saying. Don’t take it if you don’t mean it. Get serious about your beliefs, or get going. Love God. Make God your life. Give God everything you have and are.
I take it to be a challenge to live Christ’s word of service and forgiveness, so that people know who I am and what I stand for — even on the 364 days of the year when an ash cross on my forehead isn’t laying bare my religious identity for all the world to see. Christ’s word so easily slips into life’s background most of the time. This black cross calls it to the forefront and makes it harder to forget.
As I do every Ash Wednesday, the longer I’m branded with the cross, the more uncomfortably conscious I become of it. I sit in my pew and consider how it will feel wearing it in plain daylight when I take a walk later that afternoon, and then when I pick up my kids from school and all the other parents see me and know about this part of me they wouldn’t otherwise know. I hope they don’t judge me for being Catholic.
A sharp conviction — the steely voice of God, or of truth, or of shame — skewers me. A few tears follow fast. What a luxury it is to be Christian in America. The worst I have to fear is maybe — and this is assuming the absolute worst about people I have no reason to believe will be anything but kind — someone will not like me because I’m Catholic. There are no laws forbidding me from walking around freely with ash on my face. When I leave church, no one will see my marker — “I am an ambassador for Christ” — and consequently throw acid in my face. No one will burn a cross in my front yard or paint my front door with signs of hate because of my religion. My children won’t be taunted or terrorized at school because of theirs. No one will defile the headstones above my deceased grandparents’ buried bodies. My priest can safely don his collar, vestment and sash. I won’t be crucified or decapitated for being Catholic — not in this country, not at this time.
Of course, it also helps that I’m white. For now, me and my people are protected in America. My tears are fortified by fear and outrage as I think of my Catholic cousin and the wonderful woman he married, whose family hails from India and who practices another religion. They and their two beautiful children could be targeted like Srinivas Kuchibhotla — for what? The color of their skin? The worship of their God? I think of the Muslim roommate I lived with in Italy one summer, who every night insisted on sharing her dinner with me, and I think of the Muslim classmate I studied with in graduate school, whose fear I cannot begin to imagine. She is a young woman and a professional and a wife and a mother trying to give her kids the same opportunities and the same joys and carefree lives I’m trying to give mine, and the only difference between us is that I wear ash on my face and she wears a headscarf. Finally, I think of my husband’s grandparents, who are laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery due east of my Catholic grandparents’, and the abyss of torment and tragedy in their lineage that no person — let alone a whole group of people — need ever know. Their family was killed. All of them, save Sean’s grandfather’s family.
God or the truth or my shame strikes my heart again, as if God were appealing through me, because I have never known what it feels like to be a target. Dumb luck is the only explanation for that. Christ would never back the notion that the safety of me and my people are paramount. He and his revolutionaries turned that notion on its head. It will never be enough for Christ that I am protected in this country. And if I’m to be his ambassador, then I need to fall from this safe perch. I need to open my heart and my home to those who are afraid. I need to feel the fear they feel, so that I always remember my place is on the floor before them, washing their feet.