February 26, 2020 was Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. It was only about a month ago, but the evolving COVID-19 crisis has made each day feel like a week. Ash Wednesday feels like a distant memory, a hazy dream.
Ash Wednesday was the last evening we served a “normal” Agape dinner before COVID-19 forced us to reconsider safe ways to serve our community in Elizabeth.
Ash Wednesday is also a liturgical space for us to consider the shape of our lives in light of our finiteness. We have two liturgical seasons designed for repentance, prayer, and reflection: Advent, or the season leading to Christmas; and Lent, or the season leading to Easter. We have built time into our liturgical year to reflect on who we are, how we use the gifts God has given us, and whether we should make any course adjustments. The ashes remind us that we are mortal, which often feels rather macabre to me.
I offered our guests the imposition of ashes that evening. Thinking back on it, it now seems reckless. Putting ashes on someone’s forehead or hand is an intimate action. I could not have guessed a month ago that I would now be compulsively washing my hands every twenty minutes, hiding them in my pockets when I meet strangers to avoid handshakes, and bowing to my close friends and family because I am afraid hugging them could result in fatal illness. Just a month ago I thought nothing of swiping ashes on the foreheads of beautiful strangers-made-family at Agape.
I had stationed myself at the exit, equipped with a Pyrex bowl of ashes, ready to make neat crosses on the heads or hands of anyone wanting it after they had enjoyed their meal. Just a few feet away from me (hardly the six feet I measure these days), I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation of two women eating together. The older woman offered her slice of cake to the younger woman, who gratefully accepted. The younger woman heaped on praise for the meal. When she was done she told her friend that the meal would last her till Friday. She had planned her week around missing three meals between Wednesday evening and Friday morning.
There isn’t time at Agape to offer much in the way of liturgy to the guests. Some didn’t know what Ash Wednesday was, but when I briefly explained that it was a time in the Christian year when we remember that our lives are short many guests found it beautiful and wanted to
participate. The younger of the two women seated at the table closest to me told me she absolutely wanted ashes and she knew all about it from her Catholic upbringing. When I put the ashes on her forehead, I said what I always do, “You were made from dust. You will return to dust.” The woman remarked at the beauty of the words. She said they remind her of her past. She had only recently secured an apartment of her own, and for many months had lived under a bridge. She remembered how dusty and dirty it was under the bridge and she knew it was always possible that she might end up there again, so she is grateful for her warm, clean apartment.
Our guest reminded me that ashes aren’t just a theological symbol. They are an embodiment of the way everything is moving and dancing and changing all around us. The ashes can be very macabre, but they are also a tangible marker of the dynamism of life. We change. Situations change. Environments change.
She also taught me that there is power in remaining in the present and acknowledging change. She was present to her friend, and to her dinner. She acknowledged her future food insecurity. She was present to being housed, but acknowledged how change can happen. There was a sense of power in the way she was present; a sense in which she was in control even though some things were beyond her control.
Our collective lives have become a tilt-a-whirl, constantly changing, whipping us in every direction. Chaos makes us feel powerless, but if we stay present to this moment, to who we are and what we can do in this moment, we can see all the ways that God is moving and acting in us, around us, and through us. God is powerful, and we can move and act from within the power we have as children of God. I invite you to read about the organizations linked below.
Each organization serves the same guests we serve, and they need our help now. We are not powerless. Consider their appeals. Prayerfully seek where you can be present now.
with as a ministry of Westfield Presbyterian Church. Although they do not
directly serve our Agape guests, they serve very vulnerable children and
families and will need your support during this time.
them, if you can safely get to the store during your regular shopping trips).