Please welcome today’s guest writer, the Reverend Kellan Day. Kellan (’14) graduated with degrees in religion and gender studies. She is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church and serves a parish in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Right now, she’s obsessed with the French historian Michel de Certeau and making food with her spouse from the cookbook East. She is always obsessed with her pup, Tillie.
Because I am a priest and a planner, I constantly think at least a few weeks ahead, scanning and registering any liturgical shift on the horizon like a ship looking for a lighthouse. I’d certainly rather ease onto the shore than be thrust upon it. And on the horizon, coming soon to you, is the liturgical season of Lent. We will unload ourselves onto the banks of this austere wilderness by way of Ash Wednesday on February 17.
Usually, I am ready to sink deep into the words of those ancient prayers distinctive of that day: “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I always cry, and the words always get caught in my throat as I trace an ashen cross on the foreheads of babes. I leave that liturgy more spent than usual but also buzzing as if we accomplished more in one hour than we have all year. In a normal year, telling the truth is an exhausting but exhilarating enterprise.
But this year, I feel nothing but dread for the liturgy looming out there on the horizon—and with no place to confess this among pious colleagues and dependent parishioners, I offer it to you.
I don’t really feel like telling the truth about our mortality or your children’s mortality this year. I don’t want to touch any more ashes—there have already been so many bodies put in the ground. I don’t want to draw crosses on heads (a cross or crosshairs?), hands shaking. I can almost always get behind confessing and lamenting along with those flustered psalmists, but I don’t know if I can bear to do that alone in a room with empty pews and a tiny red dot glaring at me. The sound echoes without bodies close by.
This year, it’s too obvious that we’re all going to die. This truth stares at me through data sets and in worried texts from beloved congregants. Every day, I wear a clergy shirt or a sweater that arrived in one of four boxes on my doorstep in early October—a month or so after my dear friend and seminary classmate died. Her family shipped the clothing to me because we were the same size. I cannot picture 420,000 people, let alone 420,000 tombs, but I know that when I try to pray for those people, I get lost in such a deep and dark sea. Someone almost always has to pull me up toward the soft, elusive light—usually that someone is God. And this is to say nothing, absolutely nothing, about the little deaths that have crowded and loomed and come crashing in on us almost every damn day.
Death is often the country of a cleric. I signed up for this, I know. In some ways, it’s the very reason I felt called to join the priesthood: to be with people as they wrestled, denied, shouldered, and eased into the bright harshness of our shared mortality. To bear witness to their whispered fears and their last-minute confessions and their luminous reflections and to help them and their families say goodbye, all while trying to offer a sliver of grace found in the presence of God, in the presence of each other.
I do this despite my own constant grief over my own mortality. I do this because someone needs to be there (as you know, one of the most horrific features of the pandemic is the sick die alone or without family). But mostly I spend my time in the country of death because I cling to, sometimes with shameless desperation, the hope that life will change, not end.
The cross that is typically traced on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday (though it will be glaringly absent this year because of good and necessary COVID-19 precautions) is a shadow of the cross traced on our foreheads at baptism. In the Episcopal liturgical rite, the newly baptized is anointed with chrism and the priest declares “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” That oil, like the ashes, fades throughout the day but its mark is indelible. We will die, yes. But first, we died with Christ. This order matters to me.
I will not boldly proclaim “You are dust and to dust you shall return” this year.
But I will whisper it; I will weep it; I will hold it with you; I will pray it softly; I will tend to it like the ancient wound it is; I will offer it in the presence of our God, the one who died first.