The sun rises as I retrieve Thursday’s Los Angeles Times from my driveway. On the front page, the indelible image from Wednesday’s high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., is of a woman, presumably a mother, crying, her arm clasped tight around another parent. The forehead of this present-day Madonna wears the vestige of a black cross, drawn in ashes. The photo makes me relive the act of having a cross traced on my own forehead only one day prior. The accompanying news story describes how 17 people were shot dead and at least a dozen others were wounded. It was Valentine’s Day. For us Catholics, it was also Ash Wednesday.
We receive our ashes as a sign of repentance, of our yearning for God’s forgiveness, of our intent to live our faith more truly in the face of our mortality. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” says the priest or lay minister, blessing us with a blackened thumb. The ashes that mark our foreheads only last for a day, but the mark this makes on our hearts is meant to endure for the entire 40 days of Lent.
And so, how sadly, tragically, wretchedly fitting is the front-page photo from this Ash Wednesday. We will carry these stories with us. Again, again. Once again in our gun-adoring nation, students and teachers, supposedly safe at school, are never coming home. Once again, parents and family members wait with dread to learn if their dear sweet loved ones are among the dead. Once again, we hear people say how they never thought this would happen in their community. At their school. To their neighbors, their coaches, their teachers, their children. Once again, our nation needs to repent of our ways and turn away from sin.
May we repent as we worship at the altar of the gun, even to the point of sacrificing our own children.
May we repent, and may God forgive us, as we worship at the altar of the gun, even to the point of sacrificing our own children. May we repent, and may God forgive us, as we allow the moneyed lobbyists to speak for us, and to subvert the popular will to curtail the ubiquity of military-style weapons among us. May we repent, and may God forgive us, as we offer “thoughts and prayers” that cost us nothing instead of real and lasting answers to the hatred we bear each other, to the fears that drive us to kill, to the violence that permeates our lives.
And may we find the strength to overcome our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness: because just like after every mass shooting, most Americans will sympathize with the pain of the bereaved families, and then move on with our own lives. We shield ourselves from the thought of the missing faces at the dinner table, at Easter, at graduation, of the teenagers who will never be a day older, of the educators who did the brave things their calling compelled them to do for their students, of the dozens of funerals soon to take place in each new stricken town. It is all too much. There are so many tragic news stories about the guns that, in spite of the National Rifle Association’s rhetoric claiming otherwise, do kill people: children, students, teachers, spouses, soldiers, young people, old people, sad people, innocent people. We have compassion fatigue. We turn off our empathy. We can hardly bear to think of the most-recent dead as our own. So we do not.
But today, with ashes faded from our foreheads but not from our hearts, let us think of them. Let us claim them as our own. Let us hold them gently in our mind’s eye. Let us pause and mourn their lives abruptly ended. Let us promise them that we will honor their memory by engaging in fruitful solutions to the social ills that plague our country and steal too many lives. And lest we get bogged down in shouting matches over legalities, let us resurrect our capacity for both empathy and action. Let us stand on the common ground of love.
Today, with ashes faded from our foreheads but not from our hearts, let us think of the dead. Let us claim them as our own.
Lent is for starting over, but some things cannot be redone. We cannot wake the dead, but perhaps we can step onto the road of repentance by actively seeking God’s mercy. If we pray to be instruments of God’s peace, maybe we can start by not letting our surviving children down. The cross of ashes on the front page cries out for us to trudge the road to Lenten forgiveness with faith, with purpose, with persistence of heart, with trust in the God who loves us hugely in spite of our sins.