To Protestants, Catholics, and those folks practicing a residual sort of faith, Ash Wednesday is a day intended for reflections on death. We receive ashes in the shape of a cross on our forehead with the reminder that we will be returned to the earth one day, like all living things.
As with most religious rituals I’ve observed and/or participate in, I have concerns. To me, as a Christian, only focusing on death once per year (or twice, including Good Friday) seems like a disservice to Christ--especially after the collectively devastating year we just had. An act as simple as glancing at a newsstand or opening Twitter on your phone can force death into an otherwise peaceful day. It’s everywhere, and has always been; it certainly hasn’t gone away since last Ash Wednesday.
Or maybe it does go away, to some Christians. I’m sure only a few members of my own congregation could finish the statistic “Every 28 hours….” or give a correct estimate of how many trans women were murdered for being themselves last year. I’m sure we all were called to #PrayForParis by our pastors; how many were called to do the same for Nigeria, or Beirut? Death often fades into the background when it’s happening to people we’ve never tried relating to.
This year, Parity elected to distribute ashes at The Adam Clayton Powell plaza in Harlem. Unlike the flamboyant anonymity Union Square offers, we were hyper-visible in that space. The reactions to a gaggle of perceived religious nuts were exactly what one would expect. We were largely and purposefully ignored by passersby, which is par for the course in a city like New York. Despite that, we reached an estimated 30-50 people that afternoon. Some reacted warmly to us. Others didn’t. We experienced both smiles and sneers, and even a minor conflict with a young man whose territory we had encroached upon.
In the midst of these reactions, reflecting on my own mortality was the last thing on my mind. How could I, while interacting with abundant examples of the variety of human life?
Receiving ashes did very little for me, spiritually. Maybe it’s not for everyone. But I can tell you I was spiritually fed by supplying others with what they needed—whether it be ashes, prayers, or just a reason to stop and talk to someone on the street. I can tell you that I felt alive not by reflecting on my own death, but by standing with and smiling at other humans of my city. The spirit was with us, and not because we brought it to Harlem, but because we were called to where it manifests holistically. Honestly, what’s a better reminder of how precious life is than living it?
I’m privileged enough to not have to stare death in the face every day. Many people aren’t so lucky. It’s one thing to hear about it on the news. It’s another thing to hear a stranger ask, “please pray for my family. My father is dying.” And it’s a third thing to realize that the death we hear about on the news walks past us every day without sharing their pain.
I don’t need a day to think about my death (and quite frankly, my own anxiety does a good enough job of reminding me regularly). What I, and other Christians need to be reminded of is that some people are more vulnerable than others, and it is our duty as followers of Christ to meet them where they are. I’ve concluded that I need to call on myself, and all Christians to keep death on the brain year round. Not only that, but to think critically about the symptoms of death, which include illness, poverty, ostracization, racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, neglect, ableism and anything that risks even a single human life.
Being able to close your eyes and envision a peaceful death for yourself is a privilege, and more Christians must be made aware of this. It’s important to recognize the pockets of our society that are most susceptible to harm and death. The fear of dying by police bullet or poisoned tap water or by the hands of someone who disagrees with my identity aren’t pressing concerns for me. But they are to others, and therefore I must be mindful. I must do my part to make sure that more lives aren’t cut short by ignorance and circumstance.
Death doesn’t go away when we unplug or tune it out. It’s ever present; I’ve accepted it as something inevitable and even holy. But people are being killed before their time just because of who they are. This Easter season, and every season thereafter, let’s celebrate death and resurrection by doing whatever we can to make this world safer for the marginalized.