Ashes and Guns: Facing Our Mortality

I haven’t written in a while and I had decided that Lent would be the perfect opportunity to reignite my devotion to that particular spiritual discipline… Ash Wednesday seemed the perfect kicking off point. There is so much to say about the ashes of penitence and facing the reality of our mortality.

But when I sat down to start waxing philosophic about Ash Wednesday being on Valentine’s Day, I made the mistake of opening my news app first. Sprawled across the page was the heading: Multiple Deaths in Florida School Shooting.

I shook my head.

Not again, Lord. Not again.

I was flooded with feelings: Hopelessness at the violence in this world, anger at our reluctance to do anything different to try to curb this sickening trend, rage at the shooter, shame at myself for having grown so accustomed to this new, sorrow for the families, fear of what all the unknown details would later reveal.

So I closed my Chromebook and went to visit one of my favorite home-bound parishioners instead.

However, as I scrolled through the news on my phone later that night, after the Ash Wednesday services had been concluded, after I had scrubbed the ashes and oil out from under my fingernails, a picture took my breath away.

A mother, holding a teenager.
Anguish was on the woman’s face.
Her mouth open in a mother’s wail.
Fear written on the face of the teenager.
And on the woman’s forehead, the mark of the ashes.

Ashes Weeping

As any other Christian who practices the ritual, I knew immediately what that mark meant.

Sometime in the morning that woman had gone to her church. She had listened to a familiar liturgy. She prayed for forgiveness of her sins. And she acknowledged her own pending death. She looked her mortality in the eye and she accepted that this is the penalty of her sins. It is the beginning of a long journey through the wilderness to the grief of the grave and the triumph of the resurrection.

But mortality was not an abstract thought for her today.
Mortality stood up and demanded to be taken seriously.

That morning she had dropped a child off for school… and despite the constant stream of school shootings, like any other parent, she almost certainly assumed the child would be safe. It’s the dance routine we engage in with each news cycle: Shock, then fear, then acceptance… and we assume it won’t happen here.

Until it does.

I wondered if the shooter knew it was Ash Wednesday.
I wondered if he went on a rampage because of it and it’s association with death.
What motivated him?
The hatred of a holiday dedicated to love?
Or a holiday remembering mortality?

In a lot of ways I’m still speechless. I’m still sorting through the feelings and the thoughts that have swamped me in the past twenty-four hours. I’m sure in the days ahead I will be signing petitions, writing letters to Senators and Representatives, and trying to be an activist for change. I’ll talk to the youth group about the fears and the realities teenagers live with each day. I’ll pray because I believe strongly in prayer, but I’ll also listen to the answer and God’s call to action.

But mostly I’m just numb right now. Too many feelings all at once can do that to a body.

And yet, even through the numbness, through the helplessness, through the horror of it all, there is a voice nagging at me:

How will you repent of this?

How will I?
How will I acknowledge my own complicity in the violence and anger and resentment which seems to define current American culture?
How will I acknowledge my part in the divisions?
How will I acknowledge my role in the society which leaves so many falling through cracks, feeling disenfranchised and angry?
How will I repent of it all?

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