Keys also symbolically are weighty, representing my responsibilities, the daily load of my cares. The keys to our home remind me of mortgage payments and maintenance costs – and, as our domicile also is a bed and breakfast, keys open the door to guests, who, in exchange for our welcome, pay a fee, thus helping our business thrive (talk about the weight of worry!). The key to my car reminds me of the monthly note. The key to the gate, our need for security.
Sometimes I wish I didn’t have keys, for then I would be free of these responsibilities and cares.
Sometimes, yes, I wish, but only briefly. For having no keys would mean I had no home, no place of my own, and no transportation to take me where and when I wanted to go.
This came to mind whilst driving to church yesterday for the Ash Wednesday service. There was a chill in the air, abetted by a bracing wind; together, a bitter advent to the coldest temperatures in upstate South Carolina in 100 years. I passed a young man walking in the opposite direction. Wearing a pair of overlarge sweat pants, mismatched boots, a soiled hoodie topped by a worn coat with torn sleeves, he bore a large misshapen bag. I surmised that he was homeless.
Not always, but oftentimes, those who have no dwelling to call home have no keys. There is a freedom from responsibility in that, but, surely, no liberty from care or from fear. I wonder whether that young man, my young brother has keys. And if not, would he want them. And if so, what was I doing – in attending an Ash Wednesday service to be anointed with ashes as an outward sign of the luxury of my reflection, however brief, on my fleshly impermanence – to help him obtain them? Nothing.
As quickly as the question came to mind, I also knew that I need not answer. For what personal relationship did I have, do I have with him? None.
Nevertheless, he (I call him Adam, from the Hebrew ādhām, man) stays with me. The image of his slow-trudging, stoop-shouldered, heavy laden frame is an Ash Wednesday living commemoration of the universality of mortality, in the words of the Isaac Watts hymn, “for all that dwell below the skies.” In this, I am responsible for that young man, my young brother, Adam, who, doubtless, will appear again as he is or as another. In that, I will be given a key opportunity to do something.