Overdue Ash Wednesday post

You probably remember St. Paul’s Chapel as the chapel that was showered in debris on September 11, 2001. Not only did the colonial-era chapel survive the tragedy, it subsequently became a relief center for hundreds of workers at Ground Zero. Today it serves as both a memorial to this effort, a stop for most tourists to New York City, and a parish church.

Each year on Ash Wednesday seminarians spend time at St. Paul’s imposing ashes on the foreheads of the thousands of people that come to visit. I arrived at the chapel at 3 PM and was quickly directed to the sacristy by a security guard. After vesting in a simple black cassock I went to the place in front of the chapel where a colleague was standing with a bowl of ashes. I took his place and it was just seconds before the first person approached. For an hour I signed the cross on foreheads with a thumb dipped in ash and the words “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Some people said “Amen” or “Thank you”, others crossed themselves or stopped to pray either before or after receiving ashes. Some looked directly into my eyes, other closed their eyes or looked at the floor. I gave ashes to men and women of all ages and races. Some looked like they had come from financial district offices, others seemed to be tourists, tradespersons, or service workers. Time seemed to stand still as I signed a cross on one person after another. I remember blond hair and brown hair, curly hair and braided hair, pierced eyebrows, diamond earrings, receding hairlines, baseball caps and bangs. I wondered what each one was thinking, what they were feeling. What I felt was a profound sense of God’s presence and a deep love for each fellow human being that stood face to face with me. There in that iconic chapel full of 9/11 themed displays and flickering candles, I wanted to tell each person whose head I touched how much God loves them, and that the ashes are not just a reminder of our mortality and sin but also of God’s mercy.

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~ by Sophia on March 3, 2008.

2 Responses to “Overdue Ash Wednesday post”

  1. Lovely post, about a lovely experience. I was struck by our contrasting Ash Wednesdays, in that mine was very much about knowing the people on whom I marked that cross, knowing who is ill and who fearful, who grieving and indeed whom missing since last year…very much the pastoral role, while yours was about the objective reminder of God’s loving presence. Both such important things, and such wonderful opportunities…

  2. Since my father died, the imposition of the ashes has quite a more profound meaning. The ashes are literally what he returned to, and to which I will return.

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