I wrote this a long time ago, while I was studying at Seminary, and also working at a Domestic Violence Center.
"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
We laughed that morning because she had a bruise on her forehead where the ashes should be. How convenient! On any other day her injury would be more conspicuous. Today it would appear pious. Today she could even skip church, and no one would be the wiser, thinking her already marked. Already marked.
A garish cross I painted on each forehead with my finger. From the very young to old stooped-over ones, I drew them all: some cockeyed, askew: not straight. I drew with my finger, saying: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." It was the first year that I had actually participated in an Ash Wednesday service as a worship leader, and it seemed strange, rubbing those ashen crosses on foreheads young and smooth, old and wrinkled, pious eyes downturned, young curious eyes upturned. I marked them all with the mark of ashes: the mark of mortality, the mark of sin? I marked them all without thinking, without wondering: are the word, and the sign, judging or comforting? Are they liberating or confining? Or both? What does it mean to mark someone, and what does it mean to be marked?
This year she does not need a cross, for she is already marked: on her forehead bruised, on her forearm numbered, on her breast pocket stitched a star of David. This year there are red marks on her arms and bruises on her legs, and her heart, having heard threats, is dust and ashes. This year she knows all too well that she is dust, and she doubts that she can rise from those ashes.
Trace gently, then, the cross upon her bruised forehead, and speak gently the fierce words to that ashen soul. Do not bear down on her, but bear down on all that beats her ashen soul into the dust. Do not kill what has already died, but bring to life the new and liberated one. (Does that cross hide or expose the evil done to her?) Expose it. Expose the truth of dust and ashes and bruises. Lift high the cross, and do not hide behind it.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice." --Isaiah 42:3