What can you offer on Ash Wednesday if your jar of ashes is empty?
What do you give when you’re feeling empty? When the thought well is dry, when compassion is spent?
I opened the box that had been sitting on the pastor’s desk for weeks. “Ashes for 500” was scrawled on the top in thick black Sharpie. It was among the many loose ends that our minister of music graciously tied up in his final days before moving out of state. This would be only our second Ash Wednesday service ever, so we were grateful for every bit of help along the way.
The service the year before had been quite moving and holy, with perhaps the notable exception of the magician’s flash paper. It’s not an uncommon worship element to write down one’s sin and allow it to be burned in a flame, down to ashes, as a way to embody one’s confession and repentance, and God’s absolution. But rather than burn slowly, the flash paper is consumed in … well, a flash — a dramatic burst of light as it hits the flame and then disappears. As if they had seen God in the burning bush, worshippers continued forward after letting go of their sin paper, wide-eyed and a bit shaken, to receive the imposition of ashes on their forehead, a sign of their penitence and belonging to God.
Still, it was an incredibly holy moment for me, rubbing that sooty cross on each forehead as I pronounced a blessing over these friends. Many I have known for so long, but rarely do I stand so close or gently lay my hand on their head, look straight in their eyes and whisper the reminder that they are the beloved of God, marking them for God in that moment.
So this year I was excited when I retrieved the box to begin preparing the plates with ashes for the service, imagining the holy moments that the hour would hold. I was surprised to find a beautiful white porcelain container inside of the small box, the kind that could easily have held eye cream or some exotic spices. I gently twisted the top, trying to remove it without spilling any of the ashes. That would not be a problem. The inside of the jar was as clean and white as the outside. I tore the cardboard box apart looking for the secondary compartment that surely held the ashes because it was, after all, 6 p.m. on the Wednesday that, by definition, must include ashes.
What do you have to give on Ash Wednesday if your jar of ashes is empty?
I had no intention of finding out the answer to that question. Matt, our pastor, tried to remember how long it had been since he had cleaned out his charcoal grill. I was calculating how many phone books we would have to burn to generate enough ashes for the service. One of the deacons glanced fleetingly at the columbarium but quickly turned away. No judgment. These were desperate times.
Then it hit me. Our former youth minister was now an Episcopal priest. (And a huge fan of comic book superheroes, everything Star Wars, and especially liturgical worship.) He would have extra ashes on hand, just because. When I showed up on Chris’s caller ID at 6:20 p.m. on Ash Wednesday, he put on his cape and tights and met me at Dunkin’ Donuts with a small zip lock bag, the exchange of which, no doubt, looked quite suspicious. He saved the day.
Sometimes when we think we don’t have what we need to bless others, when the jar of our life just feels empty, we need to turn to friends to help us to be and to do what we can’t be and do in the moment on our own.
And, while I was grateful to not have to stand there empty-handed in our worship service, often we simply need to be reminded that our own emptiness can give God more room to work in and through our lives, if we’ll focus our attention on God and not what we think we lack.
I was reminded of that this week at a retreat center in North Carolina. It’s not uncommon in such places to be asked to make up the bed with clean linens for the person who will be staying in your room after you leave. But at Avila Retreat Center, you’re asked to pray for that person as you make up the bed — someone you’ve never met, for needs that you don’t know. I’m grateful for the person who prayed over my bed. As one who rarely gets more than five to six hours of sleep a night, I slept for 10 hours straight in that holy place.
Praying it forward. When you leave a place — a check-out line, a parking space, a pew in church — pray for the person who will occupy it after you. Be reminded that God doesn’t need ashes in your jar to make God’s mark on the lives of others. God simply needs you to step forward and whisper words of blessing for the beloved of God.
Praying it forward. What mark might God make on the lives of others if that became the spiritual practice that guides your journey this Lent?