Last week Saint Andrew’s offered the Proper Liturgy for Ash Wednesday with Eucharist and Imposition of Ashes at 7:00 am noon and 7:00 pm. All three services were profoundly powerful. We began the season of Lent by confessing that we have hurt the one who loves us unconditionally and beyond measure. We acknowledged that we are broken, and with broken hearts we began the work of reconciliation, promising to make amends with the one whom we love above all others; not in fear, not in shame, but with the hope and confidence that nothing we can ever do will separate us from the love of God, and with the desperate longing for reconciliation and the strength to love more fully.
So while the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday urges us to “shut the door and pray to our father who is in secret,” I suggested that people leave the church with the ashes still clinging to their foreheads. In our passage from the Gospel of Luke Jesus warns us not to pray like the “hypocrites.” He warns us against public displays of piety that are designed to increase our rank or status in the community, that beg others to see us as “better than the rest,” that are meant not to serve God and our community but which serve us instead. What would it be like, I asked, if we wore our ashes through the day and whenever someone pointed out the smudge on our forehead we replied that we are wearing these ashes because we are in love; because we have not been faithful to the one that we love, the one that loves us beyond measure; because we know that the one we love will never abandon us; and because we are working to love in the way that we ourselves have been loved? Can you imagine how powerful that would be? If we were to do that… the whole world might be…
“put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and the need of which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith” (BCP page 265 – The Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent).
Grace, love, betrayal, repentance, forgiveness, a love that can never be broken… It is a story of gift upon gift, a transformative story that has the power to change lives! Imagine what might happen if word got out!
Well word did get out! After our 7:00 am and noon services, still dressed in my alb and chasuble, I took some ashes and headed out to two very busy street corners a couple of blocks from the church.
From 8:30 – 9:30 I stood on the corner of Regent and Monroe Streets. About 15 people stopped and asked for ashes. Included in that number were two members of Saint Andrew’s who came by with their kids in the car and a cup of coffee for the Priest. There were several people who were surprised and delighted to find us, saying that their work schedule was going to prevent their attending services at their own community, and who were grateful for the opportunity to participate in something that was very important to them. While we were standing there a man approached us and said that he had five passengers in a paratransit van, none of whom were able to get out of the car without assistance. I walked up the block, climbed into the van and administered ashes to five very grateful people. The most moving experience during that hour was the woman who pulled over and parked her car, got out and told me that her mother had died that weekend, that she was running around making arrangements for the funeral and didn’t think she would be able to get to church that day. I asked her mother’s name, she told me and began to cry, we prayed, and she received ashes. It was a very powerful and moving moment.
After the noon service I stood on the plaza next to Trader Joe’s on Monroe Street. A young mother from our parish brought her three year old to see me saying that she wanted to introduce her daughter to Ash Wednesday but knew that the full liturgy would be too long for her. Meeting me “on the go” was a perfect solution. Another parishioner who lives nearby walked over with a neighbor, a young woman who is in the middle of chemotherapy, to pray and receive ashes. There were several elderly women who had read about us in the paper and had their children or friends bring them to the curbside where we chatted and prayed before administering the ashes. I was trying to keep count but I lost track after a while. I am sure that there were well over 30 people who participated during that hour. I packed up my little table and brochures, my sign and my ashes, and still wearing my chasuble, got in the car and returned to the church sure that we had offered the Gospel to people there on the streets of Madison.
I believe that most, if not all, of the people who received ashes from me last Wednesday were familiar with the tradition. I didn’t ask them, and there was no sense that they had to be a member of a faith community to participate, but almost all of them told me that scheduling issues were going to keep them from participating in their own church’s observation of Ash Wednesday.
There were a couple of people who told me that they were without a spiritual home, some had just moved to Madison, others were struggling with the tradition they had grown up with. They were all very grateful and excited to find a church that was reaching out to them.
I was asked by a reporter from the State Journal if we were demeaning the traditions of the church by offering ashes on street corners. I told him, and he observed for himself, how quickly people seemed to move into “sacred space” as I said the familiar words and made the sign of the cross on their foreheads. I pointed out that we were doing this with great reverence, that it was not a parody of slapstick and I challenged the idea that this practice was diminishing the tradition and ritual of the church in any way.
He went on to tell me that when he goes to church he likes to sit in the quiet, to step away from the busy ness that is his life, and to spend time in reflection and prayer. He wondered if we were just accommodating a pace of life that doesn’t make room for the sacred and the holy. I pointed out, and he observed that there were people who walked past me on that street corner who refused to make eye contact with me. We believe that the traditions and rites of the church are transformative, that they have great value, that they can change people’s lives and even change the world. If we sequester those traditions and rites inside the walls of the church we will have denied them to the people who would never walk through our doors. Perhaps by meeting people where they are we will give them a taste of what we have to offer, give them a sense that we are not the caricature of Christianity that gets all of the airtime in the media, and they might one day risk crossing our threshold. I wasn’t sure that he was convinced when we parted so I was very pleased that the article he wrote proclaimed that the message of Ash Wednesday is still relevant, even on the street.
Ashes To Go has been “happening” around the church for several years. This was the first time that I have participated. As an introvert I was more than a little out of my comfort zone but I would definitely do this again!
Our ashes are a sign that we are in love. They are a sign that we have not been faithful to the one that we love, the one that loves us beyond measure. We dare to wear them because we know that the one we love will never abandon us and because we are working to love in the way that we ourselves have been loved. We wear them because we know that no matter how far from home, no matter how lost we are, our God is always reaching out to us, offering us the opportunity to turn, to come home, to live in the light of God’s love.
Ashes To Go are a sign to the world that the Episcopal Church welcomes you, no matter how far from home, no matter how lost you are, we are ready to walk with you, to hold you up, to share our deepest and most powerful experiences with you, so that you too can live in this light that is a gift beyond measure.