Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. It is a sacrament that goes back hundreds of years in Christian tradition, but only a few years in my own faith journey. My first experience of it was visiting St. Catherine’s, here in town, and simply participating in their beautiful service. I found the whole thing so moving.
I felt a bit like a foreigner experiencing something culturally unique and beautiful. And I found myself longing for more. I loved the sacredness and depth of the experience. It connected me to the costliness of grace. It left my heart filled with humble gratitude.
It took me a few years before I worked up enough courage to lead a service of my own. But it has become one of my very favorite days of the year.
My particular tribe of evangelicalism has been extremely cautious of anything that felt too mystical, ritualistic, and, if I’m completely honest, Catholic. And so, we limited our sacraments to communion and baptism exclusively. And we made sure that everyone knew that they were merely symbols. We insisted that the power was not in the elements, but only pointed to the power as we ate the cracker and drank juice.
But something was lost in all this for me. The sacrament was no longer sacred. The reverence was missing… the holiness that made you want to take off your shoes. That feeling that you were standing on holy ground. It felt like we had lost the ability to see and experience what John Wesley referred to as the “divine mystery.”
My favorite part of the Ash Wednesday service is the actual giving of the ashes. It is such a tender, holy moment. It is intimate and vulnerable. As I stand up front I tell each person, one at a time, to “repent and believe in the gospel.” To see and hear and believe the good news…that it is the power at work in you. That you are forgiven, set free, and can rest in the reality of God’s sacrificial, unconditional love.
The power happens in that moment of touch. The finger against their forehead. Mine covered with the blackness of the ash, fragranced with the oil of frankincense. As I trace the shape of the cross I can feel the fragility of their heart. The softness of their tears. It is so vulnerable. And I feel so humbled.
Henri Nouwen says, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”
This is what I long to do. Who I long to be. To participate in the healing work of Christ to hearts in need of healing. And to watch God heal my own heart, often in the midst of healing others. To be that wounded healer.
This is the work that we’re all called to do. Not just me, as a minister by vocation, but all of us. We are to be ministers to one another of blessing. And that blessing is not something that we possess, but that comes through us to the hearts of others.
As I touch each forehead, I will the goodness of God for them from the depths of my own heart. What I have received I give. And in giving, my own heart comes alive. It resonates with joy. This is what we’re called to do. This is the abundant life.
And when it happens, it makes me want to take off my shoes. In the tenderness of the connection, I feel God’s Spirit. The whole environment changes. It feels deeply sacred. We are standing on holy ground.