Since it was very cold and we both wanted to go back to our warm places, I fiddled with something I could say quickly. "It's Ash Wednesday," I said. But that didn't get very far. "I'm Catholic … it's a religious thing."
I don't know what that got him, but that was as far as we got.
Less than a year later, I moved to DC to complete my theological training. I started my studies on September 11th. Shortly after taking the subway, I stopped wearing my keffiyeh. During my studies that included interreligious dialogue, I have gone back to this moment more than once.
I now understand that the simpler explanation could have been, "I am a sinner entering Lent."
In the present …
So here we are in the year 2021. Ash Wednesday this year falls after the vote between 57 and 43 on the second impeachment of the former 45 for the uprising on January 6th (our self-inflicted September 11th). It also comes after the Valentine's Day / Parkland Anniversary and Super Bowl amid Black History Month to remind us of all the things we can cram into the shortest month. And like everything in 2021, the calendar shows how it is not 2020, but we are not behind its shadow either.
I don't know if the mainstream media will play a big role on Ash Wednesday with our second Catholic President. I suspect he could go to mass and most likely have ashes imposed (maybe laid on his forehead, maybe sprinkled).
The scriptures for the day are a little ironic. They talk about how not to show yourself. For example, if you are fasting, you should still clean up and start your day. After all, what you do is not to be seen for others but for God to be seen. At the same time there is a joint call for a public gathering and presentation so that everyone in the community understands and commits to this time of reflection and preparation before Easter.
I will leave it to the priests' sermons and secular experts to apply these things to our daily lives. I have a habit of wanting to relive things, not just repeat them. While I like rituals and traditions, I'm much more interested in change and transformation. Lent always begins on Ash Wednesday. It's always 40 days. It's always about fasting, abstinence, and charity. It always culminates in Easter and the resurrection of Jesus.
In short, as I always said when I was teaching such things in the ministry, He always ascends. Good for him. The question is what happened to us? How have we changed? How can I find a better answer for the stranger who was less concerned that I was paying for gasoline and instead wanted to know more about myself and why I was there?
The easiest thing to say in 2021 is this. "Remember, you are dust and you will return to dust." This is often said when tracing the ashes on the forehead in the sign of the cross. After 2020, mortality is facing us in remarkable ways around the world. It's the great balance. The baseline from which the human spirit emerges in solidarity and recognition of our inherent dignity. (Pro-life ideas don't quite capture that.)
The other thing we Christians try to remember is that someone died for us and is calling us to radically change our lives. I don't expect non-Christians or secular people to come to exactly this conclusion. But I think we can all look to 2020 or our lives ahead of time and acknowledge that sacrifices have been made and that people died before us. And we owe them something. We must do something to clear this debt and pay it forward.
We owe Officer Brian Sicknick and two other fallen officers who served on Jan. 6, along with the courage of Officer Eugene Goodman who is still with us.
We owe our investment to better public health and safety for the 2.4 million deaths worldwide and 450,000+ in the US from COVID-19.
We owe our continued commitment to social justice in the deaths of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis.
We owe it to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many other lives important to working for systematic change.
We need to address climate change as at least 54 deaths are reported and another 200 are missing in India after a glacier breaks in the Himalayas.
We carry the burdens of more than 500 children separated from their families as they try to cross the border and seek asylum. You are still missing.
The list could and goes on. We all know loss of one kind or another. We all find hope somewhere that this is not the end for us. We have to be prepared. We have to get ready. Is 40 Days Enough? Are Biden's First 100? Be determined, we know what it cost.
Somebody died for you. Make your life count for them.
My first protest against the Trump era: Neighbors protesting the Muslim ban on February 7, 2017 stand in solidarity in front of the ADAMS center in Sterling, Virginia, near Dulles Airport, while Muslims come to pray.
Aside from this gas guard, I spent time with many Muslims in Atlanta. Hassan was the head of security at the museum where we both worked. He was a senior engineer from Iraq, but this was the only job he could get in the States, perhaps because of his background as a soldier. I remember calling him from near the World Trade Center shortly after we started bombing his country.
"It's fine," he said. "He's a madman." I also remember his last words to me before I left the area. "When I look at you, I see your keffiyeh and say to myself: there is my friend …"