I wonder if you might picture a scene. A priest and with him a lay minister of the church, some ashes in hand, and the world at our feet. Behind us is the blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Iridescent beauty as far as the eye can see, and not a bad backdrop for a piece of subversive theology. To our left is a man propped up against the concrete barrier that separates the boardwalk from the beach, with a sign that reads, ‘Homeless Vet: Any help, helps’. And to our right is the seemingly endless flow of traffic, of joggers and cyclists, men in business suits, and boys and girls dressed for a day at the beach. We are, unquestionably, out in the open, exposed, identifiably ecclesiastical in a decidedly post-religious corner of the world.
‘Ashes on the Boardwalk’ is what we advertise it as. Passers-by sidestep toward us to be marked as Christ’s beloved, and as they and I recall our common mortality, the world of the church and the world of the world meet on the edge of America. Yet that hour or so in the sun, whilst attracting stares, and some short-lived fame on complete strangers’ youtube channels, also offers us as the Church the opportunity to ask an all important question: ‘Is there anything you would like me to pray for?’
I ask it of each person as they come up to receive ashes. It is a moment of vulnerability, to be sure, to share with someone you don’t know the longings and pains you carry, yet I can see in the eyes and hear in the sighs of many of them that the question needed asking. ‘Please pray for healing for my sister’. ‘Pray for me to find my purpose’. ‘Pray for peace, I need peace’. The question of prayer and the requests then made bring what is a ritual encounter to another level, the level where the Church is most needed: to the encounter of the heart.
The truth about Christianity is that ours is a faith intended to be lived in the heart and out in the open, in the places and spaces where we will encounter others. Faith belongs, as does the Church, at the threshold of things, in the liminal borderlands of the world where people’s hurts and hopes will be met by those followers of Jesus who will encounter them where they are at, right where they need to be met. Yet for followers of Jesus, it is not merely for a day that one might brave the public life and take one’s faith out for a run. The Christian life is an ongoing vocation to see and be seen by others.
However, if we are to encounter people at the heart of things, in the places in their lives where they need to be met, we will first need to be formed into a change of heart ourselves. Our healing is a prelude to any healing we might offer to others. Our calling to follow Christ requires us to repent, to turn back on the road so that we might face the direction in which Jesus beckons us to follow him, on a road to healing and self-awareness that will not merely do us good, but form us to do good in the lives of others, not of our own power but in becoming in that encounter those thin spaces where God happens within and between us.
In the end, grace always seeks to draw us out, and to cross the lines of demarcation that we draw between ourselves and others. May this be a season in the life we share as a nation that encourages fellow travelers to cross over such lines and meet one another just as they need to be met. In doing so, may they find that, as the needs of those around them are heard, and met, light arises in the darkness.