The Interfaith Chapel at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport doesn’t look much like a place of worship. Tucked just downstairs from the Delta ticket counter, it resembles a classroom with rows of chairs and frosted windows that shadow a constant stream of hurrying figures.
I was spending a too-long layover with Real Simple magazine when the announcement blared over the loudspeaker: “Ash Wednesday services start in 10 minutes in the chapel. All are welcome.” Something to do, I thought. I had forgotten it was Ash Wednesday.
We make a motley crew in that unlikely sanctuary. A young couple with a toddler and a baby stumble in carting a stroller, a car seat, a bag of toys. The mother hisses something in Spanish to the father, who drops the diaper bag on the nearest row of chairs.
In front of me, two teenage boys fidget, their voices a lilting Irish as they discuss their upcoming vacation. An older woman beside me talks on her phone, her vowels suggesting origins on the Eastern seaboard. Others straggle in, alone or in small groups, accompanied by the scrape and squeal of their wheeled cases.
“We prepare for the season of Lent by using these 40 days to ask God to do a little spiritual housecleaning,” the priest says. “As we receive these ashes on our foreheads, we show that we are open to God’s presence in our lives. In these ashes, we recognize our faults and our weaknesses. We get rid of the clutter and junk in our hearts and enter the Easter season in new birth.”
We are invited forward to receive the ashes, and this company of strangers shuffles toward the altar as one. Everyone is hushed. The mother accepts the ashes from the priest and then reaches her palm out to her toddler, swiping back his bangs. The older woman, phone bulging from her back pocket, grabs the priests’ wrists as if in supplication as he administers the ashes. One of the teens stands before the priest, and I see that the left side of his face is marked by extensive skin grafts. The angry scars are coated with ash.
It’s my turn. I step forward and the priest intones, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” With his thumb he gently makes the sign of the cross on my forehead. The gritty ashes mix with the oil already on my face, the result of too many hours traveling, too many fast-food fumes.
As I turn to return to my seat, I view this tiny congregation from a new perspective. For a little while, we are called from all over the globe. We leave our burdens of luggage and guilt, diaper bags and fear, carry-ons and worry, at our seats. We’re reminded, as we take on the biblical symbol of mourning, that in the grand scheme of things, we are minute. In our scarred and greasy incarnations, we present ourselves to a God who looks upon our hearts. For these brief moments, we set aside our concerns about missing our connections, our anxiety about what lies at the end of this trip, the burden of upcoming travel.
Observing Ash Wednesday at an airport may be the best way to do it. After all, an airport may just mirror our spiritual lives. We put our baggage down for a minute. But then we clutch those burdens again, too distrustful to let them go, too afraid of a stingy grace that would relieve us of the weight, too impatient to let someone else handle them.
I hurry on to Gate B-44. My flight will be boarding soon. And this time I’ve decided to check my bag.