Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

I leave my clergy lectionary study group to grab a cab and head to the church. It’s Ash Wednesday and I’m looking forward to Lent. I always do. The reflection, the self assessment, the   desire for repentance, for reconciliation comes relatively easily. It’s what this journey leads to, the resurrection part that’s hard. I know that there must be death before resurrection, but for this church, for me personally, how much has to die before there can  be rebirth?
There was that same continuing argument with Krystin about choice. To what extent did Jesus choose his scriptural responses to  Satan and to what extent were they just there? From deep inside? Like when you’re in a pastoral situation with someone and the words just come? But, I say, they’re never just there. They’re the response to years of study, prayerful reflection, engagement with others...We learn what we practice. Spring training, that’s what this  time is, spiritual spring training. 
I open the doors, go to the steps. I post the signs made by Jim announcing the imposition of ashes.  Start to sweep. Peter arrives. He was one of the performers at our Balcony Music Festival. And runs his own design and communications business. We go to Popover’s. His son’s favorite place with the warm popovers and apple butter. Like others I know, Peter’s left the Upper Westside for Harlem. Part financial, for a family. Part diversity. More and more this neighborhood has felt to him as white as Seattle. 
We talk about P&G’s, where he met Amanda at an open mic night. The open mic circuit, the motley community of musicians that is  P&G’s on Monday nights.  We agree that it would make a great TV show. Or for Peter, a documentary. I share  with him our vision for the  church. For the building . For the Centre. For our centennial gala. For Amanda’s envisioned concert series. He shares with me his work, his ideas. He asks questions. I so don’t know what I’m doing here, but I keep seeking relationships, having conversations. It must come together. We’re behind already.
I have to run up to Advent Lutheran to pick up some palms from my friend Pastor Elise. We were at SPSA last Palm Sunday, have no palms of our own. They come from Advent’s altar to my hands and I’m back to the church.  I place votive candles on the steps and light them. (Note their Mardi Gras colors.) Light a scented three wick candle in the narthex. 
A woman enters with a stroller and two children. A Latina nanny. I put on my white alb. My Peruvian stole. I light the Christ candle. I get a tarnished communion cup from the Session room and take it to the table. Taking a page from my friend Elise, I place the dried palms in the cup and light them. The flame rises up, the smell of burnt palms filling the air. Elise likes to let it linger as long as it lasts. When the flame is out, I mix in the consecrated olive oil to make a paste of ash. I make the prayers, read the scriptures. Invite her forward.
Say the words reminding us of our mortality. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Place my finger in the ashes, mark the sign of the cross on her forehead. She crosses herself, thanks me, gathers the children and leaves. Next is Rachel and her daughter Nadia. They come forward. After the ashes, we talk. Nadia picks up a bulletin from last week. “I used to read these when I cleaned at Jim’s. It was my connection to church,” she says,then  “maybe it’s not so popular anymore, the ashes.” I remind her that these doors were closed for three years. “or maybe people just don’t like to show their religion in public, in these times.” As we talk, others arrive. I see Rachel and Nadia out to the steps. Say goodbye.
From noon to one, they come. More nannies. More strollers. A mother and son. And then a young man, Daniel. I ask if he lives in the neighborhood. “No, I work here,” he says. I impose the ashes. He crosses himself. Says thank you. Looks around. “It’s magnificent,”he says. “ Needs some work, but beautiful. These doors, they’re always closed. But I was on my way to St. Gregory’s and saw the open doors, the candles. I said to myself, I got to go in.” I tell him our story. He nods. “Yes, it will take some work. But if the doors are open, people will come in. Like me.” He tells me that he’s a porter at a building down the street on 86th.  Then he says he’s got to go back to work. “Thank you, Father,” he says. and is on his way.
With the exception of Rachel and Nadia, all my visitors have been Latin. And workers. And many, immigrants. That’s part of what I have loved about this day. Who walks in. Participating in the popular faith of the people. When I was a kid, this was foreign, strange, not what we did. Me and two or three other kids would sit alone in the classroom  while all the other kids went away and came back with eerie  marks on their foreheads. It seemed a bit scary. And I felt like an outsider. The one thing my anti-papist tradition taught us was to be not Catholic. What we knew about  Jews was that they were not Catholic. My mom and sister are stills somewhat aghast that we do this. 
There’s no real theological reason not to do ashes. It’s culture, tradition. Our most recent prayer book has a service “for the imposition of ashes.” In this neighborhood, the lines between what’s Catholic and what’s latino are often blurred. And my colleague Katherine from her Anglican background  brought her own liturgical love of  ashes.  She helped create the service we used for so many years, serving  beside me, noon and late afternoon, then racing to get to the community service at West End. I like being connected to this. To see who comes in. I remember the year a bus driver pulled up to the bus stop, came running in, got his ashes and jumped back on his bus. 
I extinguish the candles. Bring the votives back inside. Lock up the doors. I’ll be back later. 
Typing this, the smell of burned palm ash and olive oil lingers on my fingers. 
                                                * * * *
The sun is going down as I open the doors again. It’s the time of day when the sun comes through the rose window from the west. I put the votives on the steps again. Light the narthex candles. And the Christ candle. And wait. 
People start stopping in after work. A tall African-American woman named Lacaya says, “It’s not like when I was a girl. The churches were open all day. All day today I’m walking around. The churches closed.” I tell her we were open during the lunch hour. She tells me she saw the open door, the light shining out from  the inside. Knew she wanted to stop before she headed home to the Bronx. To her own Apostolic  Church. Retail workers, domestic workers, working class African-Americans and Latinos on their way home. 
Arcadia comes in, right from work. Startles me in the candlelit quiet. Another Latina woman stops by. They chat in Spanish. Deacon James comes in, greets Arcadia. An Italian woman comes in with her daughter, Sophie. She’d seen the lights, wanted to come inside. Had been here once before.  With her father. 
It’s getting time to lockup for the night. Acadia brings a young woman from the neighborhood and her daughter to the front of the church. “She wants ashes, “ says Arcadia. The come to the table. The daughter asks her mother what to do. “He’ll let you know,” she says.  And so they are the last. I finish. Walk out with Arcadia. Lent has begun.

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