Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ash Wednesday

Preached at Saint Andrew's Episcopal School, for Middle and Upper School chapel services. The high point of chapel was hearing Anna sing, "There's a wideness in God's mercy..."

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 6:3-10

The first time I ever placed ashes in the shape of a cross on someone’s forehead was in March of 2002, just six months after that same someone had been covered in ash from head to toe as Lower Manhattan collapsed around him. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, I told him, but of course he knew that now.

We were standing just in front of the altar at Trinity Episcopal Church, the great gothic guardian that keeps watch over Wall Street. It was a cavernous, elegant space filled with marble and polished wood and stained glass… filled, still, with enough dust and ash to disable the grand pipe organ and enough memories of that day in September to disable the heart.

The main Ash Wednesday service was long over, but as seminarians we had been asked to remain in the church to offer ashes and solemn words to any who walked in off the street throughout the afternoon. Many of those who came in worked on Wall Street, wearing their suits and vests, hurrying in on their lunch hour and then lulled into lingering by the stillness in the sanctuary. Others lived nearby, assisting children or elderly relatives up the aisle for their helping of dust. I’m sure some were tourists who wandered in after their allotted time on the observation deck that overlooked Ground Zero just a couple of blocks away. There we all were, in church on Ash Wednesday, wearing on our foreheads evidence of our common vulnerability.

After a while, we made our way to Saint Paul’s Chapel, a much smaller Episcopal church that somehow survived when the towers across the street did not. The little church had been struggling to stay open before, unable to find a way to be relevant to the city that surrounded it. But it quickly became a home away from home for the thousands of women and men who came from near and far to help work through the wreckage. Three hot meals were served each day. Workers slept in cots and pews, supplied with pillows and blankets and even, when needed, a stuffed bear. An infirmary was set up to tend to aching heads and blistered feet. Counselors and Kleenex waited in one corner. And there were tables and tables of donated supplies, sent from all over – work boots and gloves, clean shirts, eye drops, water and much more. Surrounding it all, covering every column and wall, hanging from the balcony and lining the windows, were countless colorful banners bearing messages of gratitude and hope, encouraging letters written by schoolchildren, and paper doves silently cooing peace.

We arrived just in time for the Ash Wednesday service to begin, and again we assisted with tracing crosses on the foreheads of those who were gathered there. Many had been working at the site, which at that time was still an active recovery effort. The rest were volunteers who spent the day filling soup bowls or hanging doves or giving out band-aids and clean socks. There we all were, in church on Ash Wednesday, wearing on our foreheads evidence of our common strength.

I learned on that day that although we are desperately vulnerable both to accident and temptation, so are we decidedly strong, resilient, selfless, courageous, and determined to hope. The ashes we wore on our foreheads were for us the sign of our commonalities rather than our differences, despite the variety of colors and textures and shapes of skin upon which the sooty crosses were drawn. They were a sign of our common need for God and for one another in this sin-filled world.

I had always experienced Ash Wednesday as very personal, as a time to repent of the things I had done to separate myself from God’s hope for me. And it is this, in part. But Ash Wednesday is also a celebration of the reality that we are inextricably bound to one another, entirely in need of one another, and sharing more in common than we might at first believe. If you put an end to oppression, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, If you put an end to every gesture of hate, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of the moon. God may have made us from dust, but it’s the kind that sparkles when the light shines through it.

Here we all are, in chapel on Ash Wednesday, and soon many of us will wear on our foreheads the sign of our common vulnerability and our common strength, our common grief and our common hope. May we all choose to shine when the light hits us. Amen.

Banner created by Eliza Linley, on display at

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