Guest commentary by Ashley-Anne Masters
The last time I saw many of my college students in person was Ash Wednesday.
During the day, the Episcopal campus minister, Lutheran campus minister and I hosted “Ashes to Go” at the Free Expression Tunnel on one of the college campuses in Raleigh, North Carolina. Some were thrilled to see us; others murmured that we shouldn’t be there. One refused to take our photo when we asked; another thanked us profusely. My favorite stranger asked as she passed, “It’s what Wednesday?”
That evening, senior high youth joined my students for dinner before the combined worship service between two partner congregations and our campus ministry. There was bacon and there were king cakes. There was stress about tests, and hoping against hope to just make it to spring break. There was angst about crushes. There was pain due to hard family situations. It was dusty, finite, business as usual.
After preaching, two clergy colleagues and I imposed ashes. My already stained fingers made countless signs of the cross on foreheads, while locking eyes with others, declaring: “You are beloved dust. And to dust you shall return. You belong to God.”
When one of my students, who has had a particularly difficult past few months, came forward, I couldn’t catch my breath as I said, “And to dust you shall return.” I kept my hand on the student’s forehead, and once my words returned, I said, “But not anytime soon.”
My dad was in town since I was scheduled for oral surgery the next morning, so I again lost my breath as I told him, my surviving parent since my mom died seven years ago: “You are dust. And to dust you shall return.”
My colleagues and I then celebrated the sacrament of communion. An attentive choir member handed me a Kleenex, as she noticed my smudgy fingers were getting ashes all over my bulletin and liturgy. We broke bread. There were crumbs. Grape juice splashed. All were fed. Ashy fingerprints were left on chalices.
It was intimate. It was messy. It was holy. It was raw. It was authentic. It was everything I adore about Ash Wednesday.
We didn’t imagine then that the coming days would make us feel even more finite. Even more raw. Even more intimately aware of our collective dust.
As I was organizing files and documents to prepare to work from home for the foreseeable future, my Ash Wednesday sermon was still open on my laptop. The title and last page made me gasp. I titled it “What Do You Treasure?” and the primary Scripture was Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21. This was the last page:
With earthy things that thieves can come in and steal will always come tangible loss and violation. Yet, the beauty of knowing just how finite we are, enables us to find great hope in our most treasured dust being that of each other – our memories, the sound of voices, the smell of their favorite sweater – that no earthy thief can ever steal.
It is my hope for us this Lent that amid the ash heaps of our finitude and earthly pain, we pay special attention to other dust that some say should be been left in a corner.
It is my hope that we will collectively gather as dust to share the beauty of the human condition together.
It is my hope that even on our hardest days, we will never forget that we were created with the stardust of the Divine, and nothing, absolutely nothing in this life can ever change the value we have as children of God.
Remember that you are beloved.
Remember that you are marked by grace.
Remember that you belong to God.
Remember that you are a treasure.
Go forth into this intentional Lenten wilderness adventure expecting to be amazed and surprised by just how much God can do with our dust. Amen.
This week, as my student leadership team and I met via Zoom on Monday evening, we discussed how daunting and eerie all of this is, and that perhaps we have never truly known Lent deep in our bones before. Through tears, we talked about canceled trips, unknowns of long-awaited summer internships and how bizarre it will be not to be in churches on Easter Sunday.
In an attempt to comfort them, I said that April 12 will not be Easter as we know it, but Easter will come. Easter has always come. This wilderness is temporary, and the tombs of unknowns and of this pandemic will not define us. Resurrection will still happen. Because it always has. And we need to keep reminding each other of what we know: We belong to God. We belong to each other.
As I saw their teary eyes and heard their uncertain voices on my laptop, I flashed back to touching their foreheads not so long ago. I don’t know when we will be in the same room again. I don’t know when we’ll hug hello or goodbye again. I don’t know when I’ll take them on a trip again. I don’t know when we’ll break bread together at tables again.
What I do know is tonight we’ll have a Google Hangout at 7 p.m. because we always meet on Wednesday nights. We’ll share spring break stories. We’ll lament. We’ll laugh. We’ll have Zoom small groups. I’ll continue my office hours via FaceTime. We’ll watch movies together on Netflix Party. We’ll share links to free online museum tours, concerts, books and Broadway shows. We’ll pray for each other via our online prayer journal.
For we are beloved dust. And to dust we shall return. And nothing – not social distancing, or quarantine, or postponed graduations, or months of not seeing significant others, or frantically packed up dorm rooms, or cancelled study abroad, or anything else in this pandemic – can ever separate us from the contagious love of God and the grasp of God’s hands.
With gratitude for modern technology, we shall continue to gather as collective dust. Because resurrection always gets the last word.
ASHLEY-ANNE MASTERS is director of Presbyterian Campus Ministry in Raleigh, North Carolina.