From ashes to ashes

The cross of ashes painted across my forehead never fails to remind me of my humanness. It was as though I could feel the weight of my soul, my feet heavy to the ground, as I stood before the altar, the rector brushing sooty palms above my eyes, reminding me that I am dust and to dust I shall return.

I was listening to NPR yesterday when they did a piece on Ashes To Go. They interviewed a rector from a nearby Episcopal church who stood at several street corners and an El stop on Ash Wednesday, offering "ashes to go" to passersby. The interviewer balked at this as "church in a hurry." But I couldn't help but agree with the Bishop of the Chicago Diocese's response. He spoke about ashes to go as an opportunity for people would never consider stepping into a church, people who have been hurt by the church, to receive ashes and to participate in a sacred act. It is the church, meeting people where they are at, coming to the streets, armed with a bowl of ashes and a white robe, to offer a symbol of repentance, brokenness, and the beginning of a lenten journey. The rector who stood on the street corner said she had experienced moments of sincere emotion and reflection with the people she had offered ashes to.

There's something really magical about this idea of bringing the sacred out into the ordinary, removing the walls that declare a place holy. As I reflected on this idea of ashes to go, I was reminded of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem:

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.

I don't often think of the El platform or the corner of Cermak and Pulaski as holy. But it is aflame with the very same holiness and reverence that Moses encountered at the bush in Egypt. I wonder how my words and actions might change if I began to think of the common spaces around me as such. I wonder how much greater of a lover of God and neighbor I would be if I remembered that the space on which I stand is holy, that even the 'hood in which I live may be crammed with heaven.

I was reading Kathleen Norris' reflection on repentance last night. She recalls the story of little boy in a parochial school where she was an artist-in-residence. She was reading the psalms aloud and asked the children to write their own psalms. This little boy wrote a poem called "The Monster Who Was Sorry," in which he admitted he hates it when his father yells at him, but in the poem his response is to throw his sister down the stairs, wreck his room, and finally wreck the whole town. He concludes the poem: "Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, 'I shouldn't have done all that.' "

Kathleen Norris writes, If that boy had been a novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?

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