Tuesday, March 11, 2014

In Ashes and In Joy

Becky Zartman
When the woman saw us at the top of the Metro at Dupont Circle, tears welled up in her eyes. As she ran towards me, the tears began to stream down her face. “Thank God you are here. I just don’t know what to do anymore. My daughter. She’s sick. Can you pray for her? Can you pray for me?” Of course I could. That’s why we were there. Together, despite being strangers to one another, we held hands, leaned our heads in close, and we prayed. 
I’m not sure what happened to that woman, or to her daughter, since our encounter on Ash Wednesday. I can’t speak to how we affected the scores of other people we prayed with or imposed ashes upon, or even those who simply looked as they passed by. But I’m sure about what happened to me. As the morning wore on, as I prayed and imposed ashes with one of St. Thomas’s Ashes-to-Go teams, I found myself in the paradox of ministry: inexplicably, as I was getting emptier and emptier, my heart was growing fuller. Full to bursting.

I don’t pretend to understand the ways of the heart, or how God interacts with the human. But I think that our very vulnerability as we stood, in the cold, on the sidewalk — stripped of liturgical decorum, stripped of the mediating confines of our church property, and stripped of the ability to intellectualize smudging dirt on another’s forehead — opened us up so that God in the Other could leak in. For one morning, we took off the Episcopal armor, and instead trusted that God would show up, regardless. And God did. Face to face with the people of Washington, my own stony heart was broken again, and in the breaking, it opened up to the presence of God.

Whether or not you agree that Ashes-to-Go is the right place to start in getting the Episcopal Church out and doing public witness, public witness is a piece of the Christian tradition that desperately needs to be reclaimed by the Episcopal Church, if only for our own spiritual vitality. Public witness can be uncomfortable and scary, but that’s exactly why we need to be doing it. In witnessing, it is we who are changed, we who are broken and rebuilt, we who are unexpectedly brought up short by grace. My hope for St. Thomas’ is to get the church out there in every season, not just in ashes, but also in joy. 

Becky Zartman is the Assistant Rector at St. Thomas’ Dupont Circle, and is working a Fresh Expression in the diocese. She blogs at www.vicarofhstreet.blogspot.com and tweets at @Becky_Zartman.