I had occasion to be walking in downtown Philadelphia at rush hour on Ash Wednesday. Working my way in and out of the crowd, I noted the faces marked by the cross of ashes. There were a lot of such faces—more than I expected. And they were so varied—sometimes even surprising.
Several thoughts crowded in as I continued to reflect on what I was seeing. First of all, I realized what a stereotyped view I had of God’s Kingdom. I felt convicted at my own surprise to see ashes on certain faces. I wondered at my own secret standard of the kind of face that “should” be marked with ashes. What kind of face on what kind of person did I assume would make the explicit effort to attend Ash Wednesday services to identify publicly as a disciple of Jesus or at least a member of the church?
I also realized simultaneously that I did not have ashes on my own forehead. I had been driving all day and had not had a chance to attend Ash Wednesday services. I was not visibly marked as Jesus’ disciple in that crowd. I was “traveling incognito” as Simone Weil used to describe her own pilgrimage in early 20th century France. I assumed that there must be many others walking the streets of Philadelphia that day who were also in my situation.
I felt a certain pleasure in being part of a large underground society who knew what the ashes meant. I felt an instant kinship with the people with the ashes. I wanted to walk up to each of them and say “You, too?” Tell me your story.
Finally, I realized that, while the ashes make the circle of seekers and believers somewhat more visible than on an ordinary Wednesday, what I was experiencing really should inform the way I walk through all cities and all circumstances on all my days.
We are walking all the time in and out among people of the Kingdom—some of whom we recognize, some of whom we don’t. We do not know where God is at work. We do not know where any given person is in their pilgrimage. We do not know the impact of our interaction on a given individual on any particular day.
We do know we are walking everyday among individuals created in the image of our Heavenly Father. We do know that we should treat everyone with the grace, respect, kindness and attention appropriate to someone loved by God our Father.
I am entering Lent with a renewed commitment to pay attention to those among whom I am walking. May God give us eyes to see the varied and surprising ways He is at work in our midst. May He give us willing hearts to be used even in unexpected ways in that work.
Grace and Peace to you today.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976