Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Invited: One Reflection on "Ashes to Go"

I will admit, when I first heard about the movement known as "Ashes to Go"a  few years ago, I was rather suspect. I agreed with its many detractors who said that the apparent motivation of convenience behind the movement was flawed. They insisted (and many continue to insist) that the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is meant to be experienced in a community. It needs to be placed alongside of the reading of Scripture, the proclamation of the Gospel in a homily, the Litany of Penitence and the celebration of God's grace in Holy Eucharist.

I believed all that for several years.

Then, last year, as I was sitting in a room with my fellow clergy in the Great Lakes Chapter of The Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, one of my brother priests spoke up. "When I stood at the onramp of the hi-way today, I had all kinds of people stop. One of them was a trucker who came to me with tears in his eyes saying that because of his job this was the only way he could get ashes on this day. He was so grateful."

The story stopped me in my tracks and my critical approach began unraveling.

So, this morning, at 7:30am, I pulled into a parking lot at Walgreen's here in Grand Haven. I took a big sign out of my car and set it at the corner of the busy intersection that store is located at. I put on my cassock, surplice, and stole and I threw my heavy wool cloak around my shoulders. I then took a small container of ashes (and a cup of coffee) and went and stood at the corner. The sign proclaimed "Ashes to Go" and I was going to figure out what this experience was like.

The first thing I noticed is that it is cold. My goodness is it cold in Michigan in the middle of February. The weather was in the mid-twenties when I got out there and it didn't warm much as the morning went on. I kept my leather gloves on unless I was imposing ashes and shortly after my coffee ran out, a parishioner who had driven by came and brought me a hot chocolate from Starbucks. By the time I left, my feet were nearly numb and I was standing there with my cloak wrapped tight around me.

So, yeah, it was cold.

But the other thing is this: I could not keep from smiling. This is a big busy multi-lane intersection and I got to see a whole lot of cars go by. Some people looked at my confusedly, others waved cheerfully. I got a few peace signs and several thumbs up signs. And I spent the whole two hours I was out there grinning like an idiot. It doesn't seem very somber or Lent appropriate to be grinning like a fool while you are standing near a sign inviting people to be reminded of their mortality... but the joy I experienced was irrepressible. I loved each and every person that drove by and I hoped so badly that they could see that it my smile.

I didn't get a lot of traffic. To be honest, I only wound up giving ashes to two people the entire two hours I stood out there. I think I needed more and bigger signs. I don't know, I'm not an Ashes to Go professional. I'm just an amateur looking for a way to interrupt people's lives with the Gospel message of love wrapped in death, that strangely beautiful message of this day.

I hope that for those that didn't stop, I served as perhaps a sign of some kind, perhaps a reminder. Maybe some of them hadn't realized it was Ash Wednesday and I reminded them to find out when their church was having services. That would be pretty awesome.

Maybe some of them were confused and then googled "Ashes to Go" when they got to work. I thought about that and realized they'd find all kinds of essays and blog posts with Christians fighting about whether or not it was appropriate. That made me a little sad. I don't want the unchurched (or de-churched) to have the idea reinforced that us Christians just like to argue about everything. I hope they know that we argue about this sort of thing because we love God and them, because we want to be faithful. I hoped that... but worried they'd just scratch their heads in confusion.

And I really hope, man oh man do I hope... I hope that some of the people that drove by saw a priest in strange garb with a ridiculous smile on his face and maybe it made them smile. Maybe it provoked the thought that not only is there freedom in those ashes, but there could be joy there as well. I hope they saw the love that was in my eyes as I watched them drive by, as I waved at small children who thought the whole thing looked so cool, as I smiled for drivers who snapped pictures with their cell phones.

And I hope they found me to be an invitation.

Because that's what Ash Wednesday really is after all. It's not the entirety of the Christian Gospel. It's not the entirety of what discipleship looks like. Heck, it's not even the entirety of the Season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is an invitation, and invitation from the church to step back for a moment and to make a choice over these next forty days to pattern your life more deeply after the life of Christ.

I hope those who stopped and those who drive by found themselves invited into something more, something deeper...

I'm headed back out there in a few minutes. Maybe as I stand out there from 4:30pm to 5:30pm I'll be able to catch those commuters on their way home. Maybe they'll have time to stop now, time they didn't have in the morning. Maybe they just needed a reminder, a small nudge, that this day is more than any of us ever expected it to be.

A Short Ash Wednesday Liturgy
The priest invites the penitent,
Dear Child of God: I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a Holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now bow before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
The priest imposes ashes, saying,
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Both say the Confession,
God of all mercy, we confess that we have sinned against you, opposing your will in our lives. We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf. Forgive, restore, and strengthen us through our Savior Jesus Christ, that we may abide in your love and serve only your will. Amen.
The priest pronounces God’s forgiveness, to which the penitent responds, saying, Amen.
Priest     Go in peace and pray for me, a sinner.

†      †       †      †       †  


  1. What an absolutely wonderful event! In the midst of life we are in death and we need to be reminded of it from time to time. Thanks for sharing! Dan

  2. Fr Jared,
    Thanks for this, as well as for your more recent article on the same subject in the SCP newsletter I received today. I've never done "Ashes To Go" but do the Ash Wed. noonday mass at my parish for the rector so that he can go to a light-rail stop and administer ashes.
    Your standing on a busy corner in western Michigan reminds me of C2010, when, after our Saturday morning breakfast at church (it was Christmas Day!), I took all the food left uneaten (since we didn't have many guests that day) and went out on 82nd Ave. here in Portland and gave it all away to all and sundry. That included a prostitute who thought I was a prospective client! It was the best Christmas ever! (You have to realize that 82nd Ave. is filled with women in prostitution, used-car lots, X-rated "clubs," Asian food markets, Hispanic "tanderias," etc. We have it all!)
    So, bless you for your "conversion" and maybe one day I'll follow suit - but I don't like the cold. Having lived in W. Michigan, then moving out here in 1998, I can thoroughly empathize with your numbed feelings in the feet and elsewhere!
    Fr Phillip Ayers