Ash Blessings

It’s Ash Wednesday, and I’m excited. Not because I like to dwell on death. I just love ashes: the fire and matter, this rite of passage, this riverboat of living and dying we’re all in. 

As far as I know, drawing the cross in ashes on foreheads is the only unconditional ritual of the church. You don’t have to be ordained or even baptized to give ashes. And to get an Ash Wednesday blessing, no need to profess a thing: Just receive, in a dark smudge, the dust-to-dust of us, the particles of stars on your skin. 

This afternoon, I’ll receive ashes on the New Haven Green, then offer ashes at the hospital where I do two shifts a week as a chaplain. I’ll walk around the ICU, the cafeteria, the psych unit. For all who wish to receive, I’ll dip into ashes that have been blessed by a priest and scrawl the shape of a cross on their foreheads, and say Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. But I want to change the you to we. Or better yet, I want to go completely off-script.

I want to say a particular blessing for each person who lets me scrawl a cross on their foreheads and each person who declines:

May the delusion blooming in your brain be a prophecy for you,

a grand musical you wrote coming true: a bicycle utopia,

where nobody goes lonely or hungry, and gravity is erratic,

where everybody fly-cycles, and the only currency is songs.

Bless every overdose, every suicide, every broken hope

to the rehabilitation of the spirit

and the miracle of all souls going

wherever the dead heal 

and gladden together.

May we be as trees, walking 

each loss that is a cross, light as ash,

branch to our liberation leaves.

May your discharge plan be a library, open 24-7 only for you

so you can howl your longing to high ceilings

and have the stacks to yourself, every spine of every book

a testament to a particular long-winded wish,

a braille of sorts, a portal to a moon your heart makes. 

May the Sunbeam loaves you crumble in the bus shelter on Humphrey Street

be as manna from heaven for the pigeons who gather at your feet.

As they launch up, may you feel a sheltering presence,

a haven created for you,

and bathe in the shadows of their wings.

May you find your way to a Section-8 place of your own,

With a window open to the stretch of sea that takes you home. 

May you hear your own heart as through a stethoscope,

the tides of your island as through a conch shell.

May all the brambles we get tangled in–

the ravages of accidents and addiction,

trauma and injury, illness and time–

collapse into points of starlight,

the constellation of the body,

and the life of our stars to come.

May all the pains that estrange you 

from your own life

heal into lit angels

flocking to astonish you

with more grace than you can take in.

Bless every wreck,

every collision that injured you 

to be a stitch of heaven,

a place of your gladdest imagination:

a gosling sanctuary, a lake

where they swim in figure eights

while their wing joints strengthen.

Bless your vision of the witnesses who saw dust become breath.

May they tell you, in a million dawns,

The light of the world before and after time.

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.