by Jordan Miller-Stubbendick

When mixing ashes, the trick is to use just a little oil and go slowly. Too much oil, and they become a soupy mess, stuck at the bottom of a greenish-yel­low shimmer. If there’s too little, add more just a few drops at a time. The only way I can ever get it right is to practice making crosses on the back of my hand, again and again, until my skin is smudged like charcoal. The pad of my thumb quickly turns black, brushing dark smudges on anything I touch.

I want the consistency to be right since soon these ashes will make their way from this glass bowl in my hands to the foreheads of my pa­rishioners. Ash Wednesday, this liminal place of death and life, is a day of strange contrasts. When I smudge ash and oil onto the skin of those who come forward, I mark them with a sign of death to assure them that they will live.

The cross, that ancient means of execution, is a means of hope, of life, for those who come. They bend stiffly, easing knees onto cushions, hands bracing bodies and chins tilted up. I trace the ashy cross on each one, murmuring, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Gently I brush hair back from foreheads, as they meet my eyes or keep them closed.

How often do I touch the hair, the head, of another human being? I am forever kissing the head of my toddler son, brushing the hair from his eyes, inhaling his sweet Johnson’s baby lotion smell—but other than that hair and heads are largely off-limits for me. I am aware of the intima­cy of this small gesture I perform today. I trace the cross on foreheads, each a different representation of this symbol of death-into-life. Some crosses end up as dark smudges, others are missing a quadrant or two. The crosses are as distinctive as those who bear them: some barely a whisper of ash on skin, others so laden with soot that the ashes fall to the bridge of the nose below, eyes blinking in surprise.

What does it mean, this ash and oil applied to skin? Child of God, child of God, I remind myself as I look in the mirror at my own cross of ashes. It means that we have been marked with the love of God in Jesus Christ, the hope of life forever, the mystery of death that transforms into life. It is smudgy and messy, and the consistency is only ever right on paper. In my actual life, something is always askew, yearning for wholeness.

How to fix it myself? I can’t. I ask God to take the ash and oil of my life and smooth it into something smudgy and life-giving. I kneel at the altar rail, chin tilted up, to receive my own reminder. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And death shall transform into life for you, as the oil and the ash are slowly swirled together again.

Jordan Miller-Stubbendick lives in Kenmore, New York, with her family and serves as pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Niagara Falls. Her work has been published in Coffee & Crumbs and The Village Magazine.

This article is excerpted from the January/February 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.