February 26, Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21)
Every year, we repeat this dusty choreography.
Prior to a ballet performance, I hold to a strict ritual of dusting my pointe shoes with rosin, a crystalized tree sap. A pointe shoe’s toe box is formed by layers of hardened glue and satin. This binds the foot, enabling the dancer to channel the strength of her ankles and feet to rise up onto the tips of her toes and balance there. But the toe box also makes the shoes quite slick, and rosin dust helps offset this.
The feat of elevation that pointe shoes provide gives the illusion of overcoming the earthly demands of gravity. Charles Didelot invented them in 1795 and called them “flying machines.” Marie Taglioni wowed audiences with her ethereal dancing in 1825, when she became the first ballerina to perform a role entirely en pointe in La Sylphide. While pointe shoe construction has evolved since then, rosin dust remains, and I apply it to my shoes as if my life depended on it. A shallow, plastic box of amber crystals of rosin hides in the wings on either side of the stage, ready to be crushed into friction-creating dust that keeps me from falling on my face.
As rosin dust holds my feet fast, the dust of Ash Wednesday stops me in my tracks, disrupting my vertiginous illusions of grandeur, permanence, and indispensability. Every Ash Wednesday afternoon, I prepare for worship by mixing the dusty ashes of last year’s palm branches into the oil used for anointing. As the presider, I apply this dust to the foreheads of those gathered for worship, repeating this solemn truth to each person, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”