Ash Wednesday this year found us traveling to Boston. We arrived in mid-afternoon and Elizabeth suggested that we stop by the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Cross for the imposition of ashes. Unlike us Lutherans and Episcopalians, the Catholics don’t always make you sit through a worship service and a sermon in order to receive your annual momento mori. Instead, ashes on demand are available all day. You just walk down the long aisle of the brightly illuminated Gothic revival cathedral, mount a reasonable number of steps up into the sanctuary and there you have it: an elderly priest fully vested who’s sitting quietly, waiting for you.
He doesn’t say a word until his thumb is on your forehead and then, in the midst of life, he marks you for death: “Remember, you are dust . . .” he insists. It’s quick, efficient, and starkly effective. The ashes they give you at the cathedral are pretty special, too. The immolated palm branches combined with a binder of rich olive oil really does the job: I was a visibly marked man for the rest of the day.
I washed the ashes off before going to bed and thought little more of the matter until the next morning. We had gone out to breakfast and as soon as I sat down at the table, Elizabeth took one look and informed me that I was still wearing my ashes. “That can’t be! I washed them off last night,” I protested. “Look in the mirror,” she said, and when I did, I saw the black blotch in the middle of my forehead. “What’s going on?” I wondered to myself. “Is this some sort of supernal joke? Is the Lord telling me I need a super-sized reminder of my body’s ultimate fate?”
I retreated to the men’s room, scrubbed my face, and we went on our way to the physician’s office a few blocks away. When we arrived, I took off my hat and coat and waited for the doctor to enter. Elizabeth took one look at me and told me my ashes were back. “What?” I exclaimed. “Impossible! I just scrubbed my forehead after breakfast!” “What’s happening to me?” I wondered. “‘Ashes to ashes,‘ I get that. But unremovable, persistent reminders? What’s up with this — a personalized pop-up stigmata?”
I was half-way to the doctor’s restroom when I stopped in my tracks and went back to where I’d hung my hat and coat. I grabbed my hat and looked inside. The miracle of the recurring ashes was solved: the hat’s inside brim was dark with the sodden remnants of the Ash Wednesday sacramental! When I later told my dear rabbi friend and fellow chaplain this story, he had some advice for me: “Wear a yarmulke for next Ash Wednesday.”
I think of the perverse joke my favorite hat played on me as we now enter pandemic week for the nation. Our country is woefully ill-prepared to meet the challenge of this moment. We have had since last December to take the necessary measures to face this crisis. Now here we are in the middle of March and to date fewer than 5,000 of us, (out of a population of 331 million), have been tested. Things have been so far neglected that we should assume at this stage that virtually every state if not nearly every community is home to unknowing, asymptomatic carriers of the corona virus. That’s not panic, that’s public health good sense.
We should be pursuing a vigorous program of testing, starting with the community’s most vulnerable. Until we test, we won’t be able to contain this lethal disease. We cannot adequately protect those who need help the most until we have a clear idea of the extent of the virus’s spread. We cannot control the outbreaks until we know who has been infected and is likely to infect others.
But up until now, the federal government seems more concerned with magical thinking than with full transparency. They appear to be more committed to looking good than to isolating the outbreak’s carriers. In contrast to the many inspiringly effective state governors and local mayors, some of our national leaders strike me as being more interested in minimizing the threats to their political careers than to pursuing the best public health practices. While our puerile president claims we are ahead of the curve on all of this, we are actually squarely behind the eight ball as a nation. It’s a dangerous moment: we risk ultimately overwhelming our entire health care system. How easily narcissism can lead to abject malfeasance and sheer stupidity!
Consider Elizabeth’s and my situation. We are both in our seventies. She has a persistent bronchial condition. I have a compromised immune system, diabetes, cardiac issues and liver disease, all resulting from persistent cancer and ongoing chemotherapy. We are vulnerable to contracting and passing on this virus. The likelihood that we will even be given a chance to be tested any time soon is remote.
So, in an effort not to become or to compound a public health problem, we are seizing the initiative by undertaking the smartest strategy we can devise for this singular moment. We assume that the COVID-19 virus is already among us here in Maine in an asymptomatic form. In the spirit of hopeful vigilance, we have cancelled all but medically necessary meetings. We’re trying to maintain a six-foot distance from unexpected visitors and we’re thoroughly washing our hands on a frequent basis.
Yesterday I wrote my bishops, (Lutheran and Episcopal), who had asked me to preach and preside at forthcoming Easter worship services. I told them that “There is nothing I would rather do than to meet this urgent need for pastoral supply at Easter. However, I must decline because of a seriously compromised immune system stemming from persistent cancer and ongoing chemotherapy. I would be loathe unwittingly to put any of the parishes I’ve been privileged to serve in jeopardy. This decision goes against all my pastoral inclinations, but I’m reminded that Luther once instructed us to use good science and common sense so as not to contribute to the spread of disease in the conduct of our pastoral office. For me, saying no to such a request is a most difficult thing. Hopefully, it is also the most loving thing to do.”
“Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.“ How well I know that — even my hat reminds me of it these days. But the one thing I don’t intend to die from is stupidity.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2020