To celebrate and commemorate my recent ordination to the Episcopal priesthood, I got a tattoo.
Not the norm, I know. Most folks take a silent retreat or read a classic religious text. Instead, I sat for two and a half hours while an artist went to work on my arm.
Full disclosure: this was not my first tattoo, but my wife tells me that it will be my last.
I began to meet with the artist and go through drawings several weeks ago. The tattoo is inspired by an icon of the Harrowing of Hell that was written by Wayne Hajos. In the icon, Jesus is standing on the broken gates of Hell and pulling Adam out of his tomb by his wrist. John the Baptist stands by and points the way to Christ, even in Hell.
The image is powerful for many reasons. What resonates most for me is the idea of God’s grace being the motivating factor for salvation. Adam is being pulled by his wrist – he is not doing anything.
The fact that John the Baptist is preparing the way of the Lord, even in Hell, gives me hope for the wilderness situations in our world today.
In our final meeting before scheduling a date for the actual tattoo, the tattoo artist confessed something to me. This man, gritty with every inch of skin covered in ink, said, “I am not religious at all. I am a fairly passionate atheist. I never do religious tattoos, as a matter of principle, but there is something about you and this tattoo. I don’t know what it is, but I feel like I will be giving you something and you will be giving me something. I don’t know man, I feel like I’m getting something out of this.”
My first thought was snarky, as it tends to be. I thought, “Well yes, I’m paying you. You are getting something out of this.” As I left the tattoo shop and got into my car, however, I realized what he was saying. He couldn’t put his finger on it. He didn’t have the formal theological language to describe what was happening. He was saying that in coming into contact with the story of Christ, he was receiving a blessing.
I doubt he would call it that, but that’s what it was. The story of Christ and the notion of God’s grace was presented to him in a way he understood, in a tattoo, and he let it in.
Does this mean he will drop what he’s doing and run the nearest church? Unlikely.
But perhaps his heart was “strangely warmed”.
On Sunday, I celebrated my first Eucharist. To be precise, I celebrated the three services at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Roanoke.
It was a beautiful day filled with many beautiful moments. I did wear the chasuble backwards for the first service and there was a medical emergency in the late service that involved moving the whole congregation to the chapel while the ambulance arrived.
But in the midst of all of that chaos, I felt a profound peace.
The children’s choirs sang at one of the morning services, which snapped the whole day into perspective. The first time that I wore a robe in church was as a member of the children’s choir at the Church of Our Savior in Charlottesville. Now, decades later, I stood by as the children’s choir sang, wearing the robes of a priest.
“You are getting something and I am getting something.”
That morning as I placed my hand on the head of each person with their arms crossed over their chest and pronounced something that has been true since their birth, that they are blessed, I understood what the tattoo artist meant.
They were receiving a blessing, true, but I was also receiving the blessing of following the call of God.
I trusted that God was calling me into the priesthood and have received the incredibly blessing of being able to proclaim the Good News of God and to preside over Christ’s Holy Table.
I received the blessing of being able to stand in front of the people of God and assure them that God’s forgiveness reaches them as well.
I received the blessing of being able to look out into an over-crowded chapel full of people, displaced from their normal worship space, and declare that God is indeed with them, at that moment and always.
That is the secret of ministry. It is not a top down arrangement. It is not a one-way service.
Jesus was onto something when he told his disciples to be servants of all. It is in serving and giving of yourself that you get everything you could ever need.
It is in giving that we receive.
To the tattoo artist and the children’s choir I say, thank you for blessing me as I begin the incredible journey that will be my life as a priest.