I was one of the priests administering ashes today in chapel at the school. I also gave out the bread at communion. I will be doing the same in a local parish tonight. There are things that I do in the priesthood that routinely break my heart. Person after person comes and quietly submits to having ashes imposed on their forehead and takes away with them these words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It seems to me that each person comes wrapped in their own death, in the mortality we all bear and we choose at least in this moment not to flee and wrapped also in the dying that is unique to their particular life. It is part of pastoral ministry even in a school that you inevitably know something of the particular dying each person brings. Each one brings perhaps a long struggle with a chronic illness, a losing battle with persistent depression, a sick child, the recent loss of a parent, the shame of constant defeat in the battle with a besetting sin. I don’t know the whole story but enough of each one that my heart is pierced through with the beauty of their faithful burden-bearing and their hope that Christ will touch, forgive and heal. I have much the same perception and the same feeling each time I administer the bread and wine at Holy Communion.
I have become more and more suspicious of the concept of the nominal Christian. Our parish churches are supposed to be full of nominal Christians who are just going through the motions, of half-believers who are relying on their good works and who have not really surrendered to Christ and accepted the Gospel. In any parish church there are a few real apostates, and a few real scoffers and perhaps a few who genuinely hate God. Their numbers are routinely exaggerated. Most of the people who come to the church Sunday by Sunday know they are dying and are placing their hope in Christ. It may be an inarticulate hope, it may be a confused hope. Often there are huge brambles of misunderstanding that must be cleared away before the whole power of the good news can come in upon them. Often there is real darkness into which the light of Christ has not yet come and which cries out for a light-bearer. Yet, they come. When Jesus saw such as these gathered in their multitudes on the hill side, the sight provoked in him not contempt for the nominal but compassion, “for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
I give thanks to God for those who come to have ashes put on their foreheads today even if they don’t really know why they come, even if they cannot give an account of the hope that is in them. I give thanks to God who in Christ draws all people to himself and for his drawing power in the liturgy of the church and I pray for the grace to communicate the living Christ to hearts and minds as I put the living bread in outstretched hands.