Or: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I am a bad Protestant. I love to get ashes on Ash Wednesday, which is a very Catholic thing. The badge of repentance is a badge of joy to me. And when I see other smudgy foreheads on the streets of Park Slope I am most unsuitably delighted. The secrets are out. We are all remembering that we are dust, and that to dust we shall return. I feel like we're all floating in the air of Brooklyn, catching the light as it comes down.
Even more, I love to give ashes, or, in technical terms, to "impose" them. We had the church open all day yesterday, from morning to night, and I spent a very inefficient and wonderful day stationed in the sanctuary, giving out ashes as people walked in. We had more than a hundred this year, very few of whom I knew. I love how this opens us to our community, welcoming "whosoever will," no questions asked.
It is a privilege to do this. I figure just about everyone was having an exchange with God, some contact with divinity, some permeation of the boundary with transcendence. Many people just came in and out. Just as many stayed to pray or meditate.
One woman came in, told me she had never had ashes, asked what it meant, decided to try it, knelt, received them, and then, with sudden tears, told me that her prayer had just been answered! She went to a pew and sat in silence. Holy smokes, what a privilege.
Old First must be getting known as a place to receive ashes. We have our regulars now, from the pizzeria, the bank, the hospital, Con Edison, and real estate. We always have cops, which means a lot to me, because I know what they do for our community and what they carry and how little they are paid.
This year we had crews of firemen from two different trucks. They line up in their boots and suspenders and jackets (not their helmets!), and taking turns they kneel. I put the ashes on their foreheads, I tell them to remember that they are dust and to dust they shall return, and I am moved to be doing this, and I think, who the hell am I to have this honor? I'm giving them ashes? I telling them about dust? These guys should be saying it to me! But, then, I am just the vehicle for something greater than myself. Their business is not with me, but with God, and I just happen to be the coupling. But still, I consider it a very great honor.
The day is framed with opening and closing services. Here the people are mostly from Old First. I like this because it's people I know and love and we are sharing something. The sign is minimal but the depth is great. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. Together we accept our mortality, and our need for mercy, and the gift of repentance. It is very much like a children's song. I think that Ash Wednesday makes the lightness of being to be quite bearable.