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Tattoos for Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is always a big day for the Lyon College campus. It’s a day that our students look forward to for numerous reasons. It is one of their favorite services we host. And, if I am honest, it is one of my favorite services too.

But it is also a hard service for me. In part, because I stand in front of my students, look them in their eyes and trace the sign of the cross on their forehead as I state their name and I utter the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is a gut punch to me.

I know that death is a part of our natural cycle, that it is something we will all face and experience one day. But it feels surreal to remind college students of this fact. For these young people are full of life and energy. They are full of questions about life and faith, and they are trying to find their way in the world. To remind them in their joy and optimism that they will die one day just seems out of place.

As so, I usually cry as I stand in front of them tracing the cross, stating their name, praying internally for a long and healthy life full of joy and wonder. I also end our time together with a benediction saying, “May the memory of your incompleteness awaken you to all the sorrows, joy, pain and wonder of life.” I remind the students, and myself, that in this memory, in the celebration of Ash Wednesday, we are to be awakened to the fact that we will die one day, we will return to dust — but that should cause us to awaken to all of life here and now.

As we began the school year and the spring semester, the one question that students had was about Ash Wednesday. They were curious if we were going to be able to celebrate this day. So that sent me into brainstorming mode. How could one make the imposition of ashes something that is safe in the time COVID-19 and would adhere to the campus guidelines of safety.

While it was not immediately clear how we would have imposition of ashes, it was clear that Ash Wednesday would be different. This past year was a doozie. It pushed us, challenged us, threw death into our face. It reminded us yet again how fragile life can be. And so, as we gather this year there is more death in the air than in the past — it is a part of us and there is no escaping it this year. There is a recognition of the reality we are in and the honesty of death that is usually reserved for Ash Wednesday has become a social norm. This year, Ash Wednesday will have a gravity to it like never before for our students.

As I continued planning Ash Wednesday, I was challenged by how we would celebrate tactilely and yet remain in good standing with campus COVID-19 guidelines. The list of ideas is really comedic gold. Let’s just say at one point as a joke I put paintball gun on the list as a means to keep social distancing and yet administer ashes. And as I brainstormed, I thought about temporary tattoos. It seemed like a strange idea, yet one that I kept returning to.

After some research and consultation with colleagues, I realized this idea that seemed so strange was in fact how we would administer ashes this year. When I talked with the students about the new form of administering the ashes, they were on board. They were excited, more so than I had seen in a long time. In part, it was because they feared we would not even be able to have ashes at all or even a service for our campus. This on-a-whim idea that I’d added to my absurd list actually came to life and provided my community with the opportunity to have this service even in a pandemic setting.

So, this Ash Wednesday, we will gather online. Each student will have a temporary tattoo. They will be the ones to place it on their foreheads or hands. And while we will see each other on screens, I will still look into their eyes, and I will still utter the words, “Remember you are dust.” And we will still close with the same benediction: “May the memory of your incompleteness awaken you to all the sorrows, joy, pain and wonder of life.”

I know that if this past year has taught us anything, it is that life is precious and death is inevitable, but we should hold that tension together — even if holding it together is in the form of a small temporary tattoo on our forehead.