I don’t know if Saraswati Puja always falls this close to Ash Wednesday. I don’t recall celebrating this festival with the Menon side of my family, though I certainly remember marking other Hindu holidays with them. I’m not sure that I’ve ever paid much attention to this day in the Hindu calendar. But this year, Saraswati Puja falls just a day before Ash Wednesday, and a Facebook post by Jo Kukathas marking the occasion sparked the connection for me – and I’ve been sitting with it all day.
Jo Kukathas writes, “I love the fact that the coming of Spring is tied up with the Goddess Saraswati and that it is a day to remember and honour what she stands for. Saraswati symbolizes creative energy, she is the Goddess of knowledge, music, art, wisdom, and learning.” An article in The Hindustan Times explains that “worshippers believe that without Saraswati the world would be shrouded in ignorance, as she is the one who represents enlightenment.”
For Christians, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40 days of Lent – a period of sacrifice, reflection, and remembrance that leads to Easter Sunday and to the promise of a seasonal and spiritual rebirth. We wear ashes to remind ourselves that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” It is humbling to receive that reminder every year, and it was especially so this year. The words seemed to reverberate quietly as I received ashes from Mother Melissa Wilcox in the courtyard of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Carlisle, Pennsylvania where she is Associate Rector. In this moment, especially, it is a reminder of our fragility, our interconnectedness. Remembrance is powerful, as the first Lenten poetry prompt from enfleshed suggests.
Fr. David Gierlach, in his Ash Wednesday homily for St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Honolulu situates this ritual within a practice and theology that reimagines death: “The death that comes when we surrender our indifference to the needs of others, when we forego looking out for number one, when we remember yet again that it is Jesus who welcomes the foreigner, the criminal, the oddball…Jesus invites us into his death because through his death is the life that is beyond death: this new life found in the resurrection.”
Teresa Maria Cariño, in her Ash Wednesday sermon for Catholic Women Preach, extends this view of Ash Wednesday with an invitation: “As we enter into this season of Lent…let us give alms not just by giving money to the poor but by working for economic security of all. Let us pray not just by reciting rote prayers but by opening our hearts to listen to the Spirit. Let us fast, not just from food and drink but from the privileges we have been given to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. Let us work together to repair relationships and co-create systems of economic and social justice. Let us be brave enough to be the light as we free a new dawn.”
Echoing and transforming those pivotal lines from Amanda Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” Cariño gives me the framework through which to connect these two festivals – Saraswati Puja and Ash Wednesday. In our hurting world, crying out from so much pain and suffering, Saraswati Puja and Ash Wednesday offer the promise of a new season; of hope and rebirth; of enlightenment and resurrection. May we feel, embody, and share this promise with others.
Sheela Jane Menon is a Malaysian whose journey to the United States was by way of Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Singapore & Honolulu. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Dickinson College. She also serves as a Commissioner & Chair, Schools That Teach Committee, Governor Wolf’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, Pennsylvania.