Last night after our Ash Wednesday service at the Cathedral I headed homeward with a small container of ashes to give to my daughter. She had to miss the service because her gymnastics practice ran through the evening but (and oh how this warms the heart of a clergy parent) was sorry to miss getting ashes on her forehead, so she’d ask me to bring some home.
Before I arrived at her gym I took off my clergy collar, so as not to embarrass her too much, and headed in. The ashes were in a plastic bag in my shirt pocket and I planned to wait until we got home because we were carpooling a friend to her house.
As the girls were heading into the waiting room to meet their parents, I overheard one say to her father, “Oh no, I just realized that I never received ashes today.”
It was my moment.
“Excuse me,” I said to the dad I had never met, “but I’m an episcopal priest, and I happen to have ashes with me because my daughter asked me to bring some home. If you like, I can give ashes to your daughter too.”
“I’ll ask her,” he said. Then his daughter came back to me, now with four other girls along with my daughter, and lined up for ashes just as the folks in our downtown cathedral had throughout the day. The words were the same, and even though these young gymnasts had been focusing on their practice only two minutes before, they were suddenly present to the sacrament of the moment as I made signs of the cross on their foreheads.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
And then it was done. We headed to our cars and out into the cold night. My daughter wanted to explain what we did to the friend who carpooled with us, and the friend had polite questions about a practice that was unfamiliar to her. I drove home with my heart warmed.
The beauty of ritual can bind us together and teach us things that words cannot. We didn’t talk about the churches that we all came from or the meaning of the ashes: the point was that for these young people, the ritual spoke a common language that allowed for connection and holiness that was as rich in the waiting room of a practice gym as it was under the ornate arches of the Gothic cathedral. The ashes were a moment to touch the deeper story – and it was just that, a short moment – and then return to life.
When ritual and holiness are integrated into our lives, sometimes that short moment is all we need.