Not Hiding

I like rituals. I like sacraments. Those rituals we think of as being holy. The ones that point us towards God. Baptism. Eucharist. Weddings. Foot-washing. Penance. Ordination. Anointing. Altar prayers. I love it all. Not because I am sure that there is special divine power in the water, oil, or wood. But because they are, at best, outward symbols of an inward transformation. They let our community and the wider world see that something within us has changed.

Today is Ash Wednesday where many Christians engage in a ritual called “the imposition of ashes.” It means different things to different people and traditions. For some people, it is a reminder of our mortality. Some clergy place ashes on the forehead with the words “from dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” For others, it is a call to repentance. Indeed, there are many passages in Hebrew scriptures where individuals and communities ritually repent to God, or even to the earth, by covering themselves in dust or ashes.

Ashes

Ashes

I like the parts of the Hebrew scriptures where individuals and people cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes as a sign of grief and mourning. Jacob does this in the book of Genesis when he believes that his son Joseph has been killed. Over and over again, people cry out to God with their pain by wearing sackcloth, dust and ashes.

Hebrew and Christian traditions have multiple messages about public piety. One scripture from Matthew is highlighted on Ash Wednesday. It says that we should not be publicly pious just to be seen by others. We should be personal and private in our giving and prayers and fasting. Another scripture highlighted on Ash Wednesday comes from the book of Joel where God tells the people to “rend their hearts, and not their clothing.” I’ve often heard ministers interpret this passage to mean that God wants our hearts, our feelings, and our devotion more than outward symbols of religiosity. Yet another Ash Wednesday scripture from Isaiah 58 renounces public fasting indicating that God prefers to a public piety that “looses the bonds of injustice and undoes the yokes of oppression.”

I’m all about it. I believe that justice work is a demonstration of our faith. I don’t think we should have an outward religious practice just to impress other people. But I still need the sackcloth and ashes.

I don’t come from a tradition that honors grief well. Sure we have funerals that are often called “celebrations of life” of those who have passed. We bring food and flowers and create programs that remind us of the best, the divine, in those we miss. But I sometimes wish I had a tradition like sitting Shiva. Where you wear black, close the curtains and don’t move. For days. For seven days. It says publicly: “I’m grieving. I’m sad. I’m not okay. I can’t move. Not yet.”

The best my tradition has to offer is the imposition of ashes. For me, it hearkens back to wearing sackcloth and ashes to mourn. As I’ve been writing recently, there is a good amount of grief in my life. It’s been here for months. It probably won’t go away tomorrow. Life slowed, but did not stop. I still teach, work, lecture and care for my family. I still clean the house, run errands, cook meals. But the grief abides.

So I wear ashes today to say that I am not hiding my grief. There is often so much silence around women’s reproductive pain. (Google anything online about how women don’t talk publicly much about the pain of miscarriage or infertility.) So often, women (and men) hide it like it’s a secret or an area of shame. And we grieve privately and alone. I write about this so that I don’t grieve in secret. I write about loss and grief and depression so that others will feel less alone. I write about it to say publicly: “I’m grieving. I’m sad. I’m not okay. I can’t move. Not yet.” Writing honors this truth and disarms some of its power. These words are my sackcloth and ashes.

Book Monica A. Coleman to speak at your event.

Monica speaks with heart and vulnerability as she discusses some of the most challenging issues of our day. She speaks out on issues that churches and society often keep silent: mental health, sexual and domestic violence and religious diversity. In the pulpit, she offers a refreshing view of how scripture leads us to community and social action. In academic lectures, she blends her knowledge of religion, cultural studies and literature with social issues to offer new visions of faith. In every setting, she shows audiences how our faith can free us to be more and more of who and how God calls us to be.

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Book Monica A. Coleman to speak at your event.

Monica speaks with heart and vulnerability as she discusses some of the most challenging issues of our day. She speaks out on issues that churches and society often keep silent: mental health, sexual and domestic violence and religious diversity. In the pulpit, she offers a refreshing view of how scripture leads us to community and social action. In academic lectures, she blends her knowledge of religion, cultural studies and literature with social issues to offer new visions of faith. In every setting, she shows audiences how our faith can free us to be more and more of who and how God calls us to be.

Read More