Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…

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Reflections on an Ash Wednesday

““Beware of practicing your pie before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1–6 NRSV)

One of the most frustrating days for me is Ash Wednesday. Lent is my favorite season of the Church calendar, so it always frustrates me when people make the practices all about them. “I will give up chocolate so that I will lose weight” or  “I will give up Facebook so that I look like I am truly sacrificing when really I just want to be more productive.” Of course these decisions are not made in secret, but instead are the result of a large scale, trumpet worthy, deliberation (More on that later).  For this reason, I usually do not give up anything and instead add something to my daily routine avoiding the many questions.

Today I was particularly attuned to the trappings of Ash Wednesday. When I went to class this morning my eyes were peeled for black smudges. Everyone I met got searched for their mark. Had they been to the early morning service?  Did they have that holier-than-thou look? Still being undecided on my precise Lenten practice, I formulated my answer for the inevitable questions. This continued during the Divinity school’s Ash Wednesday/Eucharist service as I watched as everyone went up to the station, pious heads bowed, and heard that they were worthless—dust.

When it was my turn, I went, bowed my head in reverence and preparation, and while being marked with ash, heard the words: “You are dust, and to dust you will return.” As I walked back to my seat I saw on the foreheads of everyone around me the same black mark I had just received. In that moment, instead of judgment I felt a connection with those around me. They were all marked as well-fellow sinners!  We were all repenting and preparing together.  As I sat down I realized how in my righteous judgment of so many people’s piety I had individualized this day just like everyone else. It seemed a so obvious, yet so easily forgotten fact. Nothing we do in life is done alone. Fasting, prayer, supplication need to be done in your “prayer closet,” but also in community. If anyone is going to stay on the wagon of repentance, we are going to need each other for accountability and support.

For the rest of the day, as I spotted more and more people’s ashen foreheads I thanked God that they were there with me. We bore our crosses together. And I hoped that they, and all of you will help me keep my Lenten (and life) attempt to give up judgment and self-righteousness.