I didn’t really want to put on my white robes, slash a purple stole across my body and stand with an ash pot on the train platform before dawn. I don’t enjoy standing in public looking odd—no one does—but it’s more than that. I’m worried that no one else wants to do something “religious” out in public, so no one will come. I will stand there like a sandwich-board preacher on a street corner while busy, normal, discrete people walk condescendingly by.
Nevertheless I got up at 5 AM today, vested and drove to the station. My colleague Carrie met me there. She held the sign ASHES TO GO and a stack of prayer cards to hand out. A few commuters walked by us. We said good morning. Some did double takes. I wanted to go home. But in a moment a woman stopped. “Is today Ash Wednesday?” she asked. We said it was, and she stepped forward to receive the imposition of ashes. I asked her name and smudged a cross on her forehead with the age-old words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Then I added a blessing, asking the Trinitarian God to bless, preserve and keep this daughter of God all the days of her life. Carrie said, “Here’s a prayer to take with you today,” and the woman beamed.
A moment later a man stood before us. After the imposition and blessing he said, “Thank you, father,” then he paused, leaned in and asked if he could speak to me privately. We stepped away. “Stage four lung cancer,” he said. “Could you say a prayer for me?” I was stunned. I have been asked to pray with hundreds of people—but not strangers in public. I placed my hands on his head and prayed for his healing. He smiled bravely and disappeared into the crowd.
It went on like that for next two hours. People in pajamas who had thrown on a heavy coat to drive someone to the station got out of their cars and slipped in line for ashes. Children came, young people came. I saw tears in many eyes. Folks who had received the blessing called their family and loved ones from the train, and they drove to the station just to receive ashes.
A priest once told me about a trip to Guatemala and a visit to a small village that had not seen a priest in years. The people came out of their little houses and the children clung to his legs. I remember he said: “They pulled the blessing out of me.” That image struck me. The blessing wasn’t something he gave or pronounced (something religious professionals are pretty good at doing in church). It was pulled from him, from his heart.
That is how I felt this morning. I did not want to be there in the first place. My ego was so worried about looking weird or crazy, but the blessing was pulled out of me. I believe in the power of God because that is the only power that was at work on that platform. Not mine. In fact, the power of God was manifest precisely in my unwillingness even to be there. Let me show you what I can do, God seemed to be saying with a wry smile, even when my servants don’t feel like cooperating.
I heard those divine words that St. Paul heard so well: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).