“…you shall be called the repairer of the breach,the restorer of streets to live in.” (Isaiah 58:12)
By Meg MacIver
March 2, 2017
I sit at my desk (at a screen in a long row of screens), and turn up the volume in my ear buds and train my mind towards all the moments of grace I got to live yesterday, Ash Wednesday. Writing this is a chance for my mind to hold each moment like precious stones I turn over in my hand.
Ash Wednesday is special to me for many reasons, not the least of which is because it is the day I found my way back to the Church after years of disinterest and disdain. I went to GA that night years ago because I longed for the pallor and gloom of Ash Wednesday (the way some people long for Halloween) and for the rituals of my childhood church that my grandmother helped build. I wanted the hymns; the familiar weight of the book of worship, splayed open in my palms. I wanted the moment at the altar and I wanted the bread and the wine. And, most of all, I wanted the peace of the void that comes with the smudge of the ashes on my skin. I wanted to hear those precious words that knock the wind out of me every single time: "you are dust and to dust you shall return." My appetite for church that night was fueled by nostalgia, by a longing for home. That first night at GA I remember as being dense with darkness and stillness. On that night, I surprised myself: I stood in the pew and I wept and wept. As I said each petition for forgiveness, as I begged for pardon for my wretchedness, I recognized in those prayers the words I most desperately needed to say aloud. Through them, and in this safe place, I finally could give voice to some deep, hidden, wounded, mourning thing inside me (the aching part I had been trying to smother with nights of dancing and drinking and going going going). That night my tears fell in fat splashes on the altar. And in the moment when I was anointed, when hands were laid on me, I remember a soft warm light suddenly broke through the dark and I felt a pure force of love and attention and kindness coursing through the hands that held my shoulder. I was home.
And so on this Ash Wednesday, like that day years ago, I raced again from my desktop to what I now call in my heart my church and arrived in a sweat after a sprint through the subways. Ash Wednesday is a solemn day but this year it was suffused with a zany, wild joy. Maybe it was the sun and the heat of the winter day. Maybe it was my own excitement: after the service we gathered to go out into the streets to anoint and pray with anyone and everyone who desired it. It was like we opened the red doors and some magical spirit spilled out of the church and started pinging its way around 22nd Street: Deacon John was already running into traffic and going up to the drivers who, at the sight of his robes, made the sign of the cross with their hands on their forehead and shrugged as if to ask, "Ashes, Father?" from behind the wheel. Blessings and horn blaring at the corner of Lexington!
I wore a white robe and walked cradling ashes in a jar. On this sober day I was beaming with ease and a peace and an expectant smile. Then, a pang of worry: this is New York, I thought. What if people heckled us while our eyes were closed and our heads were bowed? What if they laughed? But as it turns out, this is the New York I love: no one bothered us, even for a moment.
Before we reached the park, people came to us, asking for ashes.
So we stood on the street corner and we bowed our heads and right there we spoke to our God, who flung the stars into heaven. The low places were made high places (let the every valley be lifted up!) and together we carved out heaven on the curb with nothing more than our cloth robes and burnt palms on our thumbs.
We prayed with those who came up to us at the place where we met them. We prayed on the sidewalks and under scaffolding and on the crosswalks of this throbbing-honking-striving city. Just minutes before, in church, we read Isaiah 58:12 “….you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” I carried those words with me as we walked: indeed, that is what we were doing. We restored streets to places to live in, to pray in – a transfiguration in the traffic. Together we made places of safety and love wherever we stood, altar or no altar. And I thought: could it be that Jesus felt joy like this when he stood by the sea and on mountaintops and by the road?
At the park our group of three stood near a lamppost and soon a line formed before us. One by one, people stepped forward. Nine times out of ten the prayers were for family and for health. All the prayers were simple, like prayers children would pray- and all suffused with the same longing for wholeness.
"I wish my mom were still here."
"I don't want him to die."
“I want my foot to heal.”
"I pray for my daughter."
In the act of anointing with ashes there is asking and receiving, just like prayer. The ashes themselves are traces of the church at work – they are the remnants of last year’s festival of triumph, an artifact of the active church that is a promise of the feast to come.
What I will remember most about this day was how the act of anointing, for a few precious moments, gave me eyes of pure love. I will remember the exquisite peace that comes when the person before you tilts their face forward, and you clear their hair, and you place your thumb on their brow, and you hold a life in your hands. And in that moment, all of a sudden, I stood face to face and in awe before the part of the person who addresses himself to his God.
We stood near our lamppost and they came up to us, one by one.
There was a small woman with a round, creased face peaking out from a silk scarf. She approached and said "Español." We paused and we tried to ask her name. "Español?" At that moment, the woman behind her said, “here, let me translate for her." And so she came forward as if she were there for that purpose alone. "It is amazing," said the Spanish woman. "I am traveling and I thought, where is there a church where I can go? And I look and I see you here, in the middle of the park." She tilted her face towards us, and we anointed her.
"Ashes, Father?” said the big burly man in the coarse Union-emblazoned coat. Then quickly, sheepishly, earnestly to Pastor Chris he said, “is it right to say 'Father'?" like a humble child. His prayers were for his ex-wife, who left him. Now she has a tumor in her belly. His story was full of grace: "she's the mother of my children, I will be there for her. She just doesn't know what to do on her own."
There were ashes for a little baby enthroned in her stroller. She swatted my arm away as I drew the cross: I came between her eyes and the dogs she was watching. "She might be scared," said her dad. And I drew ashes on his head, too, before they swiveled and pulled away.
And there were ashes for Patrick, who finally approached in his fine down coat and narrow shoulders and round glasses after he looked on from a distance for a long while. It was my turn to wipe the fine white hairs from his brow and call him a Child of God.
And so for hours on sunny Wednesday I got to stand and face the stream of supplications and gratitude that I think must be what God and the hosts of heaven hear at every moment of every day into eternity from the billions of born and unborn on this little blue planet spinning in black space. It turns out that what you see when you stand in that place, when you hear the words people say to their God, is what is left when the veil of the body is eclipsed and falls away. You see bare life, the innermost, indwelling heart. And when that is shown to you it is almost too lovely to bear. The singular, incandescent spirit before you is so fragile and precious and sweetly beloved that there can be no concept of failure, or lack. What was done or undone before that moment is effaced in the blaze of love. It is in that vision, in that holy act of seeing (which is maybe how God sees us all the time?) that I think redemption must dwell. After this day I can let myself imagine a new meaning for ‘forgiveness’ since what could forgiveness be but this love beyond measure that arises in the face of each person’s pure light?
When I think back over the afternoon, every person we prayed for and with blends into one person. Out of many, there was one holy instant. There was heaven present in those moments, yes, but there was also so much earth. When I lifted my head after a prayer, my senses rushed back in and I saw the blaring sunlight, heard the sirens, smelled the drying rain on the pavement. When I bowed my head again to pray I was so close I could smell the light oil on the skin of the people we touched; I could see a fresh bruise, I could see stray hairs swept over lined brows.
Somehow, when I was praying the words sometimes flowed through me just fine. And when they ran dry I told myself, be still and they will come, and that God is in the pauses, too. During the anointing, there are a set of words to say. I know that part because I have received those words on my brow: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Dust to dust. But in the praying right after, there is no script because it's all live right now in each moment and you have to pray for that singular person before you: there has never been a prayer like the one you are about to utter, nor will there ever be again. It has to be like jazz: there are some familiar chords, a structure, but each song is altogether new and singular. I watched Pastor Chris as he prayed and then had more courage. I watched his fervor and I prayed to someday find that solid nature to my praying. His praying is sustained and driven with gusto straight from a place I cannot access yet but I long for.
After three hours, my bones could not bear the beauty of it all. I left because I had to get back to work, yes, but I also left because I could feel I was coming undone. I was flooded by what I felt when we cradled each precious head in our hands and took their worries and prayed with them and tried to transmute it all together into a message we flung up to the Host of Hosts. And I don't know another word for it except that standing so long in that light of grace was making me come undone.
So I folded my robe and hailed a cab in the spring sun, feeling wrung dry but leaping for joy and filled with wanting to anoint the whole world, every hour, every day, all the time, forever and ever. And I think that on that day I really had a glimpse of what loving kindness is; I saw a sliver of the kind of love God must feel for all of us and it almost dissolved me. I am convinced that to tune into that abiding love and joy is just the most precious use of these bodies and minds we have- to be a conduit for that.
Minutes later I slid into my desk seat, panting from running from cab to lobby to elevator. I tried to remind myself that God does not disappear when I walk back into this office or sit at my desk. He is also here somewhere, abiding (hiding?). I placed my hands over my keyboard to type and saw my thumb blackened with ashes and wept.
Meg is a member of Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church, 155 E. 22nd Street, New York, NY 10010