Ash Wednesday reminds us of mortality

Standing on a busy street corner offering an expression of your faith is an interesting proposition.

It’s not one in which I ever thought I’d engage. I suppose that’s because most of my experiences with people of faith on city street corners I have found offensive. I know there are Christians who see it their calling to save other folks’ souls, and I believe most of them are good and sincere people. The assumption, though, that if someone hasn’t yet recited a formula that will ensure their eternal reward they haven’t really been saved, puts God in too small a box for me.

So how was what I was doing on the corner of Chestnut and Main this past Ash Wednesday any different? The first time I heard of “Ashes to Go” I knew I wanted to do it. I suspected there were many folks for whom ashes, a symbol of our mortality, would have meaning. I also suspected that while some of those folks had at one point been active in a church, some of them wouldn’t have. And I didn’t care. I wanted to offer them this powerful symbol.

Symbols are potent things. They cross cultures and time. They cross religions and resonate with nontheists as well. Symbols speak to us bypassing our minds, going, instead, straight to our hearts. They mediate truths in ways we don’t analyze, we simply experience – often unconsciously. And that we will live better lives if we acknowledge our mortality may be one of those truths.

Many of those things that matter, that give meaning to life, are not culturally bound or even religiously bound. They are common to all humanity. I’m not an anthropologist, but I expect they’ve been common to humanity since we first stood upright. And primary among them are our relationships, including our relationships with our loved ones, our friends, our animal companions, the planet, and the very source of our life – the mystery we call God.

So people on the street seem to understand that with our ashes we aren’t out there to convince them that we have something without which they will be lost. We are just there offering a sign of our common humanity – our mortality.

Three Ash Wednesdays in Wisconsin and now three here in Cortez and my experience has been much the same (except for nearly freezing to death in Wisconsin). Folks driving by have given us thumbs-up, waves, and horn honks. We’ve also gotten many looks of confusion. (For people who have had no religious upbringing or who belong to churches that don’t keep a liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday was just another Wednesday.) And people walking by who don’t want ashes are often very friendly, one fellow saying, “I don’t want the ashes, but I thank you for being here.”

For the nine people who stopped this year to get a smudge of ash in the shape of a cross put on their foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” Ashes to Go was a moment out of time, having moved from chronos to kairos – clock time to eternal time. That’s how this symbol works. It offers an intimate moment with another human being during which, in the presence of God, we acknowledge our common mortality.

Ash Wednesday is, as well, an entrance into a season of slowing down and reflecting on what matters and what I can do to live a more, dare I say it, holy life – this life – the one life we’ve been given to live, the one life Christ showed us is ours to give away in Love/for love/by Love. There’s no quick or easy formula for that. There’s only mystery and our hunger for meaning and us showing up and being present to one another and to the God within us all.

Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or