by Pamay Bassey
February 17th. Ash Wednesday. Although I was not raised Catholic, since high school, I have observed Lent, the 40 days of sacrifice leading up to Easter Sunday. So, I have always tried to go to an Ash Wednesday service early in the day. This year, I had a grand plan to go to mass, but the day got crazy, and I ended up locating a Catholic church nearby who said they were dispensing ashes all day. It ended up being a “drive by” visit for ashes. Such is life.
This Catholic church is in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, where I have lived for 13 years. I strolled down the street to the church, grateful that I could stop by, grab some ashes, and be on my way.
When I entered the church, I asked where the ash dispensation was going to take place – I as directed to what looked like a small office and it was actually a woman who looked like an administrative assistant who was administering the ashes. Felt a little bit of a letdown that I was unable to adjust my schedule so I could actually go to a mass – or go to my home church for a real substantive Ash Wednesday service, but I had a real surprise when this woman looked in my eyes and said, as she dipped her finger in a small container of ashes and making the sign of the cross on my forehead:
“…you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
I don’t want to be corny, but at that point, I could feel my legs getting weak and swaying beneath me. I looked at the woman who administered the ashes and she was looking at me a little strangely. Much like I used to look at the individuals who would sway and fall down at the Ernest Angley ministry gatherings that my mother used to take myself and my sisters to when we were young.
Yes, Ernest Angley. One of the diverse spiritual inputs was a stint in my childhood where my mother would pack up me and my sisters, and drive to Atlanta’s Civic Center to see the televangelist Ernest Angley. There would be day-long services, complete with healings, the laying on of hands, testimonies, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the dumb, speaking and the lame walking (I remember not understanding this outdated terminology when I was a kid – but those were the words that were being used at the time—deaf, dumb, and lame.). I remember a specific individual giving a testimony and saying that they were no longer an alcoholic, and that they had not had a “hard drink or even a soft drink” and wondering, in Atlanta, the land of Coca Cola, what the difference was (what can I say, my mom was and still is very health-focused. For the most part, we had neither soft drinks nor hard drinks in my house growing up). That is how young I was. I remember staring at the sound gear on the ceiling, which looked like potato slices, and being scared to fall asleep, even though I was just a kid, and what kid can sit still for hours in the dark while preaching is taking place?
I remember being scared, both at these services, and for years after, not to come forward for altar call. (I mean, am I saved? I have no idea! Maybe I should go up there? But why? What does that even mean?).
A large part of the Ernest Angley services was the laying on of hands where Ernest Angely would put his palm on a forehead, say, “YOU ARE HEALED,” people would fall to the floor, then get up crying, and claiming their healing. The fall to the floor was sometimes dramatic – with people fighting the fall, swaying, praying, crying, then falling. Memorable, yes.
In my case, during the Ash Wednesday as dispensation experience – the reason for the weak knees was not because of a spontaneous healing, but because, with that phrase, I was taken back in an instant to my father’s death, service, and cremation.
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
For as long as I knew my father, I knew that his desire was to be cremated rather than buried. I feel the same way. But it wasn’t until we were faced with actually executing on his desire that the reality of what this meant set in.
The first thing that we had to deal with was the violent reaction from some family members upon being told that my father wanted to be cremated. For some, there was a religious reaction from more traditional Christian members of the family. For some, there was disbelief that his body would not be transferred back to his home country, Nigeria, for a more traditional burial. And for some, that disbelief was communicated in a very loud and not very diplomatic tone. For some there were questions about whether my father made this request when he was of sound mind and body. Of course, was the answer.
With every discussion about it, I felt a stronger insistence that my father’s wishes be honored. So, I found myself standing, with the courage that only comes when you have no other option, at the crematorium the morning after my father’s funeral service.
The experience was surreal. And that is an understatement. I had no idea what to expect. We prayed, and I remember my Uncle including the phrase in his prayer that “no one should suffer any mental or psychological damage as a result of participating in this ritual.” That’s how traumatized I think he was about the whole thing (He is a devout Christian, and some Christians are adamantly opposed to the idea of cremation). But the beautiful thing about family is that we stood together, even for those who didn’t understand why my father had made this choice. We had a chance to pray, say goodbye, and were comforted by the professionalism and the composure of the gentleman who was conducting the cremation.
Even so, I remember the numb feeling that remained after it was clear that the process was over. I remember the realization that there was nothing particularly good about this kind of goodbye. I remembered how, a year prior, I had watched my ex bury his mother, and the feeling when the casket was lowered into the ground was no more or less final than the feeling that we had that morning at the crematorium –the realization that nothing will ever be the same, and that a loved one who had been present for your whole life was now gone forever.
All of these memories came rushing back in the instant that the Ash Wednesday ashes were placed on my forehead. I found myself having to pull myself together, and somehow, I made it back to my apartment.
Later that evening, I did have to leave the house and attend an alumni event for my alma mater. As is often the case with Ash Wednesday, I forgot the ashes were on my forehead. I had a few interesting experiences due to this -
1) Having an in depth conversation with a gentleman who spent the first five minutes talking to my forehead until he figured out that I didn’t have something crazy on my forehead, but that it was Ash Wednesday.
2) Having a friend tell me that she was glad to see that she was not the only one with Ashes on her forehead. Viva la sisterhood of Ashes!
3) Having a stranger tell me that she was an Orthodox Jew but had a lot of respect for those who wear the ashes on their forehead as a visible representation of faith.
I realized by the end of the day that this might be the most memorable Ash Wednesday of my life – I did not go to a long service, but in the moment that I took the time to show others that my faith was not to be hidden in any way, I was profoundly affected.
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