Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Witness

Honestly, I was not excited about going to Ash Wednesday service.  I was worried about how to gracefully decline the ashes without making it obvious.  Usually, we all go up to the front, just like on Communion Sunday, but since this service would be small, it would just be more obvious.  Not really a big deal, it's not like anyone gets upset, but I just didn't want to draw attention to it.

One might wonder why I even went then.  Fair question.  I sing in the choir.  The choir was singing tonight.  I could have just not gone, but that's not really my style.

The service is always very quiet, and very small.  Some music, some readings, some meditation, we get the ashes and we go home.  It's usually a nice service, but I will admit that I don't get much out of it.  I feel my atheism more strongly in it, which doesn't bother me, per se, but I wouldn't call it comfortable, either.

Tonight had about twice the people that are usually in attendance.  I didn't realize it until we stood up to sing, as I was in the front.  Pastor Helen commented twice, "We weren't expecting this many people!" although, clearly delighted by the numbers.

In the beginning of the service, Pastor Helen had set up stations.  I wish I could tell you more about them, but the options were:  stations or sit in silent meditation.  I sat.  I wanted to meditate, but I will admit to not being able to.  I am lucky to get my mind to shut up enough to be able to notice what is going on around me, never mind to work on what is in me. 

I am trying to set the scene here, trying to make it so you can picture it, so I can try to explain what happened.

Pastor Helen explained that we were going to do the ashes a little bit differently tonight.  Rather than all come to the front, with her administering them, she was going to take two bowls of ashes and have us administer them to each other.  It reminded me of the flame they pass at the end of each row on Christmas Eve, where the person next to you lights your candle, and you light the next person's candle.

I didn't object to the idea, only to the fact that, now, I was really going to be obvious.

I waited until the bowls were being passed.  I thought that people would be less likely to notice then.  I quietly went to the back of the church and sat there, watching.  I thought it was going to be an awkward several minutes. 

I was wrong.

As I watched from the back, I could see the couples holding hands, holding each other.  I could hear the people saying the words (a prayer?  I am not sure what to call it) to each other as they gave each other the ashes.  As the ashes made their way towards the back, I could see faces with smudged crosses.  I could hear the words more clearly, even though they would overlap as more than one person said them:

"Let these ashes on your head remind you that you are broken, but Christ will make you whole.  Let these ashes remind you that, one day we will all be ashes, but we love a God who has overcome even ashes."

The words by themselves would probably do nothing to me.  But, to hear them said so reverently, by people who believe that the call to love one another is Jesus' loudest made them into beauty. It made them true.

I wished for a moment that I believed.  I wished that I could be in the thick of that, accepting the ashes, and believing that there was a deity that could (and would) make me whole.  Trust me...not the first time I have wished that I believed.  Life would be a LOT easier in this town if I did.

But, as I kept watching, I realized that if I had been up there, I would not have seen this beauty.  I would not have been so moved by the gentle hands applying ashes, the soft words of hope, and the music playing delicately in the background.  I would have been too much a part of it to be able to see it in its see it whole and to feel its truth.

Sometimes, someone has to be the witness.  Someone has to be the observer, able to see the big picture in a way you cannot do when you are IN the picture.  When you are in the picture, you see your part; it is YOUR experience you remember.  It's hard to have your own experience and to notice your neighbor's, too.  That's not a bad thing; it just is.

Tonight, though...being the witness was an experience in and of itself.  Not everyone gets to see this kind of beauty.  The kind that inspires you to spread it around, to make people smile, to make what you put out into the world good.

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day.  I hope you witness beauty, too.  If not, then let someone witness yours.  Be their big picture.

Go in peace.