A few days ago we w e r e marked with the dual sign of sinfulness and redemption – the cross.
We carried it in quiet witness onto the trading floor as Wall Street bought and sold. In the crowded subways and busses we declared its presence over and over as our heads bobbed and we stood and sat and squirmed our way in and out. Sex workers, addicts, the lost and homeless left the churches of Times Square signed with the mark of the crucified. The cross was everywhere.
It’s awe inspiring, on this one day of the year, to see the multitude of crosses infiltrate the city. Ash Wednesday is the one day when the cross dominates this secular society of ours. I often wonder what the smudged cross means to the people who carry it. The attraction to receive this cross is powerful. More people come to the church on Ash Wednesday than Christmas or Easter. What is it that draws so many to that cross?
In the course of the day I spent close to eight hours imposing ashes. I haven’t used the traditional formula, “Remember, man, that thou are dust and unto dust that shalt return,” for several years. I made the decision to do so after years of imposing ashes on the foreheads of the children I work with every day. I often wondered what those words meant to these innocent grade school children. Why was I reminding them of the certainty of death? They were just beginning to live! I wondered what Jesus said to the children who came to him, the children whose heads he touched with the hands that would one day be nailed to a cross. I decided to use a phrase they could understand. “Remember, God loves you.” The first Ash Wednesday I began using this new formula proved to me that my choice was a good one.
An elderly man came up to me to receive the ashes. As I always do, I looked into his eyes as I said the words, “Remember, God loves you.” Then I placed my hand on his head for a moment. His reaction was a bit startling. He began to cry and said, “No one’s ever said that to me before.” My spontaneous response was, “It’s true, you know.” He hugged me and then walked down the aisle and knelt in a pew for a while before leaving. Later on, a well-dressed woman came forward. I did the same thing. She grabbed my hand and burst into tears. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that today!”
Over and over again I said the words, “Remember, God loves you.” I watched each person walk to a pew afterward and kneel down. I would wonder what those words meant to that person. Some people stayed for a minute, others longer. Almost everyone lit a candle before they left the church – a little sentinel to stand witness to their prayer. Many people came back to me before they left the church to say a simple, “Thanks, Father.”
From that day on Ash Wednesday has been a solemn day of remembrance for me. I see it as the day when we Christians become living banners celebrating God’s love.
Walking down the street, shopping, washing dishes in the back room of a restaurant, picking up the garbage, patrolling the streets, tending to the sick in hospitals, walking through Grand Central, picking up the kids at school we carry the banner: “Remember, God loves you!”
This Lent, let’s hope and pray that people begin to believe us.