By the Rev. Elizabeth Murray
Christmas is over and we are in the season of Epiphany, but Ash Wednesday will soon be upon us.
During Ash Wednesday, ashes in the sign of the cross are marked onto foreheads, reminding us that we are dust and to dust we will return. It is a bit unnerving to be reminded that our bodies will eventually return to dust. I do not know about you, but I do not particularly like thinking about my body in these terms. We prefer to think about life rather than the humbling reality that all of us will eventually return to dust.
In the desert in Arizona, migrant bodies return to dust too often and too soon. Because of heightened border security, people no longer cross at large ports of entry. Instead, they cross through the Sonoran desert. The desert is brutality hot. It is filled with wild animals—snakes, scorpions, coyotes, a treacherous landscape void of water and prickly cacti that cling to shoes and clothing. Roughly 200 people lose their life in the desert each year. Regardless of your personal opinion about immigration reform, please know that this is the gruesome reality that migrants are facing right now as you read this article.
I have traveled to the U.S./Mexico border several times. Each time, I have been reminded of the lives lost to the desert and the families impacted by these deaths. I have walked the migrant trails and have seen the wooden crosses that mark where bodies have been found. We can’t know much, but to some extent we can speculate on what life had been like for these desconocidos, these unknown migrants who have died here. We learn about them based on personal objects found lying near the body or in bookbags and pockets: a family photo, or an icon of the Virgen de Guadalupe, protector of pilgrims and consolation to those who sufferer.
Both the border patrol and the humanitarian group called the Samaritans are constantly on the lookout for dead bodies, bodies that have already begun to decompose and return to ashes. Once a year on Ash Wednesday, we remind ourselves that we are dust. But for migrants and their families, the fragility of the body is no annual reminder but is rather a way of life. Dust we are, and to dust we will return.
As United Methodists, we affirm that all people are of sacred worth. When one part of the body of Christ is affected, we all are affected. We uphold the Social Principles, which say “we affirm all persons as equally valuable in the sight of God. We therefore work toward societies in which each person’s value is recognized, maintained, and strengthened” (Para. 162, The Social Community).
For many of us, the scariest part of Ash Wednesday, of the commemoration of the fact that we are dust, has to do with our fear of the unknown. As Ash Wednesday approaches this month, I invite you to join me in praying for the ashes of those who died in the desert, our brothers and sisters in Christ who are indeed valuable in the sight of God.
By the Rev. Elizabeth Murray