Yesterday morning, two St. Philip’s parishioners met me at the Laurel Marc Train Station to do “Ashes to Go.” (Note: thanks to Susan H, who got our big sign there up on the platform!) Several years ago, I remember how bitterly cold and windy it was, and the way in which almost every person rushed past us to get on the train. Of course in that cold, they had sat in their cars until the last minute, then hurried across the parking lot, up the steps, and onto the train. A few people had come for ashes, but we knew most of them.
This year was different. It was cloudy, but warmer than usual. One of Susan’s friends, who lives nearby, came to join the three of us and to talk. We probably had a dozen people come over and want ashes imposed. In fact, one woman practically ran, saying, “Oh good, you’re here. Your diocese hadn’t put this location on their website yet, and no one was at Union Station.” [Note: it was my fault we weren’t on that site—I had forgotten to use the link the diocese had given us.]
Another came up to me, smiling broadly and exclaiming, “Yes! I need this!” Another woman hurried up, exclaiming, “I’m in a hurry, but I need a prayer!” We laughed, I asked her name, and drew the sign of the cross in ashes, then did a prayer of blessing before she hastened to get on her train.
Later, with Susan H & Jim R having put our big sign in my trunk, I drove to More than Java Cafe on Main Street, hauled the sign back out and set up outside the cafe. I had fewer people here, but there were five St. Philippians. The guy who runs the Thrift Shop across the street, and a work colleague, came over for ashes and prayers Two women who work at Rainbow Florist (two doors away) also came to be prayed with. We had a lovely conversation. And the young woman who works in the cafe came outside for imposition of ashes as well.
This year, I added a prayer of blessing to the usual “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Why? An Ash Wednesday prayer of blessing is not in the Book of Common Prayer.
In this time of conflict and division in our world and country, many people have confessed to feeling uneasy and unsettled. In such a climate, perhaps people need reassurance and blessing in addition to being reminded of our mortality. So I asked each person their name, then called them by name, did the “Remember that you are dust. . .” sentence, then added a prayer. Then I handed them a little card I had made, which had the name of our parish, the Ash Wednesday service times, and the Sunday service times, plus a prayer for protection and peace.
Some people still averted their eyes and made a mad dash to the Marc train. When I got to More than Java Café, 9:45-10:30 was a quiet time on Main Street, so I did not have many “takers” there. That’s okay. Every encounter I had yesterday was a reminder that people are hungry to have positive encounters with another human being. Even the man who said, “I’m of another stripe,” then told me that he is Jewish, but doesn’t practice that faith–that he’s humanist first, then Jewish, was cordial, and we had a pleasant conversation.
Yesterday morning, the gift to me was the awareness that four of us stood on a train platform and talked to each other, yet at the same time, we were aware of strangers. I believe that with every stranger with whom I prayed and whose forehead was etched with blessed ashes, that person knew a few moments of acknowledgement that s/he is a beloved child of God, of peace, and of agape love.
As we at St. Philip’s walk this Lenten journey together, with our “boots on the ground” on the way of Jesus, I pray that we will remember something. Remember that every person we encounter–no matter how much we think we know them–has struggles, pain, challenges and hopes that are deep, and that they will never tell us about. May we truly see each other. May we truly and deeply listen to each other. May we think about people and events through that question, “What’s God got to do with this?” and that the “this” for people is that at the center of each of us, we are hungry for God, and hungry for Christ-like encounters.
This week, look at people on the train, in the office, at the gym, in the conference room, and at coffee hour. Really see them–beyond the surface. Remember that we are all ashes and dust. But ultimately, we are all stardust and made in the image of God, the Creator of heaven and earth. Isn’t that amazing?