Four years ago the world watched with rapt attention as rescuers tried to save thirteen coal miners trapped underground near a tiny town no one had ever heard of: Sago, West Virginia. For an agonizing forty-eight hours, the news was alternately grim and hopeful, and when fact was sorted from fiction in the harsh light of the third day, it was clear that twelve men were dead and that one clung, inexplicably, to life.
Decades ago, my grandfather worked in a coal tipple—not a mine, but a facility where mined coal is transported to be screened, sorted, and “washed.” In those days, slate had to be hand-picked out of the coal. Vibrating conveyer belts would shake out the fine coal from the larger lumps, and then the various-sized pieces would be sorted and loaded into different coal cars, taken away to undergo the next phase of the process. A process in which this ancient, black, organic substance is now the largest single source of energy used to generate electricity in the United States; a process which allows you and me to flip on a light switch without giving it a thought.
The ashes on Ash Wednesday remind me of the coal dust that used to cover my grandfather from head to toe, that used to settle in the creases of his face—a black, sooty residue that can give the face a comical appearance but which, I have learned over the years, is nothing to laugh at. Coal dust for my grandfather and for the Sago miners and for countless others is a sign of a hardscrabble life at the margins of society. For some it signifies opportunity and progress, but for me (and for many others), coal dust has always represented dangerous work, social injustice, corporate greed.
Ashes are the residue of death. They are the ruins, the remains of something no longer alive, no longer with us. Ashes are all that’s left when a house burns down or when a body is cremated. And so it is fitting that we wear this sooty tattoo as we identify with Jesus and his journey toward death. A journey into, not around, suffering.
But here’s a little irony. In the part of the Sermon on the Mount appointed for Ash Wednesday’s liturgy, Jesus says that outward displays of piety are dangerous—they can lead us to be proud and self-congratulating. They are what hypocrites offer to God and to the world. So it’s a little disconcerting to read this text as ashes are imposed noticeably on our foreheads, since Jesus urges us to be about the work of justice and prayer discreetly, secretly.
We don’t receive this sign of the cross as a symbol of our own righteousness. We receive the ashes because we’ve been asked to confront death—and the death-dealing ways of the world.
The black sooty cross that we wear on Ash Wednesday is ultimately a sign of love, for it is love alone that conquers death. Among the rubble and ruin of Wednesday’s ashes is a black, organic substance that marks us as God’s own beloved.
And among the rubble and ruin of our own lives, we give thanks that we have been found and saved by a love that confronts and conquers death, and the death-dealing ways of the world. And the death-dealing ways in us.