At dusk last Wednesday a parishioner from St. Alban’s stood on a sidewalk facing Massachusetts Avenue waiting for a ride. Having attended the noonday service earlier that day his forehead still bore the sign of his mortality and penitence. While he waited a young woman with a “perky” knitted hat stopped in front of him and asked, “May I have some of your ashes?” John paused, and then said “Yes.” The young woman immediately swiped her fingers across the ashes on his brow, swiped her own forehead and said “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Oh my, I feel much better,” and walked away.
When sharing this story via e-mail John wrote that this wasn’t a manifestation of a huge theological point but was certainly amusing and a courageous stepping forward on the part of the young woman. I’d add that what was also courageous was John’s “Yes.” He might have said “What?” Or “How?” Instead he said “Yes” and the two of them shared what John equated to a passing of the peace.
I find this little story to be incredibly palpable – the sounds and bustle of Massachusetts Avenue at the end of a chilly February work day, the pixie hat I imagine the young woman to have worn, her free-spirited question and the literal “stepping forward” that transcended the normal boundaries kept between strangers. It’s incredibly touching, isn’t it?
In humility, I presume, John wrote that this event wasn’t a manifestation of a huge theological point but it’s a story that to me is reminiscent of some of the vivid and physical boundary crossings of faith portrayed in holy scripture – Jesus making mud with spittle and wiping it on a blind man’s eyes or Thomas inserting a doubting finger into a hole in Jesus’ side. It also brings to mind the admonition to be kind to strangers lest we serve angels unawares and Abraham and Sarah “sustaining the hearts” of the strangers they encountered at the oaks of Mamre. After wiping her own forehead with the ashes that John shared from his own the unnamed woman’s heart was sustained for a moment, for the rest of the day or perhaps even until this time next year… who knows? May we all cross the boundaries we keep and share the peace of God.