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   Here’s a piece adapted from my book, Priest in New York, that I’d like to share with you as we enter Lent.
    New to Saint Thomas Church in New York City, I was warned. “On Ash Wednesday, people will be coming in here all day. For ashes. You’ve never seen anything like it.”
    Indeed I hadn’t. Along with the other clergy, I was assigned a couple of hours during the day to sit in a chair at the front of the nave, just below the chancel steps. Beside was a small table with a bowl of ashes, and an old worn out chalice purificator to wipe my thumb—not clean; it will take a couple of weeks before all the black ash comes out of the ridges of the thumbprint. For this, the clergy wear cassock, surplice, and purple stole; the surplice too needs washing when it’s over.
    And the people come, about a hundred, 150 an hour; not a steady flood, but a continuous ebb and flow. I recognize only a few of them. Most of the congregation will want to come to a service, where they can receive ashes and the Eucharist, and hear the choir. These folk want the ashes.
    They enter from Fifth Avenue through the Narthex. Some go immediately to a pew and kneel. Others walk slowly up the center aisle, then turn into a pew. The church is silent and awesome, the only sounds those of feet on stone and kneeling cushions sliding and the squeak of wood.
    And, when someone comes to me, my voice. When they get close I stand, mark the cross on their forehead with ash, and say, Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
    But just to say those words and nothing else seems both to them and to me unbearably impersonal. And so many of them, before I say anything, greet me with a “Hello, Father.” And after the words of imposition, they’ll make a sign of the cross and I’ll say “Peace” or “Peace be with you,” and they often say “Peace.” We do not hug or shake hands, however.
    I think the oddest response to the words of imposition—which are, after all, a reminder of our mortality—is one that is surprisingly often given: “Thank you, Father.” I’ve just told someone that they are going to die, and they thank me! You wouldn’t say that to your doctor, would you? Yet they come, single people, pairs, families, groups from work, blue collar, executive, artsy—throughout the day they come, without ceasing, to receive this dirty mark on the head, the sign that says to the world not the forbidden boasting “I am fasting; I am a good person” (cf. Mt 6:16) but rather, “I am a Christian; I acknowledge I am going to die.” Sometimes the ash falls from my thumb onto their nose or cheek or their dress or shirt. That too is a sign: mortality is not neat, not to be controlled. To a hundred, 200 people I say: Remember, you are going to die.
    Some of my friends think it superstition. It even may be that most of the people who “get ashed” in this way do not understand the meaning of “dust thou art.” But I wouldn’t stop doing it. Brian, a Dominican friend, once told of distributing ashes beside an old tottering priest who couldn’t remember the words. He was going from forehead to forehead saying, “This won’t hurt, and it might do some good.”
Out & about. On Ash Wednesday, I’ll be preaching at the traditional services at Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas, which are at 7 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m.
    Sunday, March 5, I’m preaching at St. Paul’s Church, 420 S. Coit Rd., Prosper, at 8:15 and 10:30 a.m., and teaching the adult class at 9:15. The class will include some over-all reflections on Losing Susan.
    Monday, March 6, will be the second session (of three) on Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away. This will be on Part II of the book. The class meets at 6 p.m., for one hour, at Church of the Incarnation.
    Tuesday, March 7, I will be giving a talk on ancient notions of friendship, both Greek and Christian. This is at St. David of Wales, 623 Ector St., Denton. The talk is at 7 p.m., preceded (at 6) by stations and soup.
    Saturday, March 11, I visit Athens to lead a retreat, “How God Is Love in Suffering, Caregiving, and Dying.” It begins at 9:30 a.m., at St. Matthias. Details are here. 

Your Future is Greater Than Your Past

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   An old book on friendship was saying that young people find it easier to make friends, because they are not yet burdened with the wounds of life. The view has plausibility. When life is young and the world full of unexplored possibility, one readily enters into friendships. Then, later on, one may have a friendship (or a few friendships) whose depth and importance lie precisely in the friendship’s longevity. “He’s been my friend since college,” you might say. Or, “I’ve known her since we were both new hires at MCI.” (Remember MCI?)
    And when one has experienced the richness of a long-matured friendship, it can be hard to launch into a new one. An older person might well feel the weight of the past and the uncertainty of the future, and judge it just isn’t worth the candle to try to make new friends.
    As the old book was saying, friendship seems easier for the young.
    Thank God for the Trinity! (Thank God for himself!) The great Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson speaks of the Holy Spirit as the future of God. Jenson has a way of putting temporality into the being of God. He understands the Triune Identity to be the author of creation. God is also a character within the story of creation, the Word incarnate who is Jesus of Nazareth.
    But God is not just, as it were, behind us (as creator or source of our being); he is not just, as it were, beside us (as a fellow human, Jesus); God is also in front of us. The Holy Spirit is God’s guarantee that, in the end, our life will be meaningful—that history will have a shape and a purpose and an end. The end of all things (and not just their beginning) is God.
    This means two things that are pastorally important.
    First, God is in your own future. Thus your life can have eternal significance, thanks to the God in whom you put your trust.
    Second, with God in your future, there is more life in front of you than in your past. For although your life will come to an end, that end of your life is given by the Holy Spirit, and it is hidden in Christ, hidden, thus, in the triune life of God.
    Let me put it another way. In Christ, there are no old people. All of us have before us more life, more living, more excitement and adventure. Whether we are 15 years old . . . or 45 . . . or 75 . . . or even if we are 105 years old, there is still more to our future than there is to our past.
    So, to get back to the question about friendship, there is no reason for people of any age to hold back from making friends. Our future in Christ, the lure of the Holy Spirit, is a future of more and more friends.
    Out & About. This Sunday, February 26, I’m preaching at the Church of the Good Shepherd, 11122 Midway, Dallas, at 8 and at 10:30 a.m.
    Monday, February 27, is the first session of a three-week class on Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away. We’ll do Part I that evening. The class meets at 6 p.m., for one hour, at Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney, Dallas.
    Ash Wednesday, March 1, I’ll be preaching at the traditional services at Church of the Incarnation, which are at 7 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m.

    The following Sunday, March 5, I’m preaching at St. Paul’s Church, Prosper, at 8:15 and 10:30 a.m., and teaching the adult class at 9:15.

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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: