“I Ain’t No Voodoo Witch Doctor” – A Reflection for Ash Wednesday by Rev. Steve Nofel

As most of you know I spent the first 30 plus years of my life as a Roman Catholic.  And the last few of those years I was a Roman Catholic priest.  To be brutally honest, I don’t miss much about my Catholicism.

One of the things I don’t miss about the being a priest is this time of year when Ash Wednesday and the Feast of St. Blaise fall close together on the calendar.

February 3 is the Feast of St. Blaise.  Do you know him?  As the story goes, Blaise, was an ancient – devout Christian who was thrown in jail for his beliefs.  While in the communal jail, a boy choked on a fish bone.  Through Blaise’s intercession, God granted a miracle, and the boy was saved.

After his death Blaise was made a saint, the patron saint for the healing of all illnesses of the throat.  He was granted his own day on the calendar.  And with each Feast of St. Blaise, comes the blessing of the throats.

The priest takes two candles, unlit of course, holds them up to a person’s throat in the shape of a cross, and prays:

Through the intercession of Blaise, Bishop and Martyr,

May you be protected from every disease of the throat,

And every other illness.

You ask why I can remember that prayer verbatim after all these years?  Because the church I served as a priest had a day school attached.  Between us, my senior pastor, I said that prayer over 500 times every Feb. 3, St. Blaise Day.

We didn’t pray with the kids.  Who had time? We didn’t explain what intercession meant.  They had to get back to class.  Again and again, I did the Blaise thing feeling like a living-breathing good-luck charm.

Then quickly on the heals of Blaise comes Ash Wednesday.  In the Catholic church we did the ashes right after the homily during daily mass.  Literally, people would time out the 6:45a mass to arrive at 7am, get their ashes, and charge out again – not hearing the Word read and proclaimed.  Not participating in the Lord’s Supper.  Getting their ashes, and taking off.  Again, I felt like a living-breathing lucky charm.

As the next Blaise Day approached, I told my senior pastor, Fr. Bob I was done. I said, “I ain’t no voodoo witch doctor. I didn’t do 5 years seminary, 3 internships, and a stint as a chaplain candidate in the Air Force so I can enable superstition.  I won’t do Blaise or Ashes no more.”

Fr. Bob was understanding, and a master wheeler/dealer.  He gave me a pass on the Blaise thing, but insisted on the ashes.  He told me, “Do the ashes, just make sure you take the offering right before you distribute the ashes.”  Bob was a master.

After I became Presbyterian, I refused to do the ashes for a long time.  If people wanted them, they could go to Kim or one of our elders could distribute them, but not me.

Then, one Ash Wednesday, it all changed in an instant. Mikayla was a 12-year-old tomboy already taller than me. During our Ash Wednesday service, she came up for ashes, and asked me specifically to put them on her forehead.

I was just about to refuse her when her blue eyes looked straight into my brown ones, and she said, “Pastor Steve, I need to have the ashes to remind me that we are entering into a special time.  I need to do better.  I need to remember Jesus died for me.  These ashes remind me of all that.”

Instant attitude shift!  In just a few seconds Mikayla totally turned around decades of stupidness on my part.

The ashes are not a luck-charm, but a reminder.  Not a sacrament, but a sacred action.  These ashes are the outward sign of the inward reality that Jesus’ death and resurrection has saved us from our sins forever.

As Mikayla taught me, the ashes remind us to do and be better. They remind us that the Lord God created us from dust, and when this dusty body has passed, we live with Him because of Jesus.

These ashes are a physical reminder of the eternal truth. In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, saved, loved, and heirs of eternal life.