Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ashes to go

Ash Wednesday was a new experience for me, in no small part to the "Ashes to Go" movement by some in the Episcopal Church.

Yes, I presided for our usual Noon service, and the 7pm is still to come, but in addition, I offered "Ashes to Go" in two locations:  The White Mountain School, and in front of the post office here in Littleton.

Last year, I did a short service in the chapel at the school, and then hung around for stragglers.  The problem is, the chapel is out of the way and gloomy.

So this year, using the Ashes to Go model, I stood in the school's Great Hall, right by the cafeteria (guaranteeing foot traffic), wearing my cassock and surplus.

The most memorable moment came when a poor student couldn't negotiate the stairs, in no small part distracted by the guy in the strange clothing.  The space worked well, and seven of the students and 3 staff members came over for ashes.

Here is what I handed out to them (modified from the online resources for Ashes to Go):

Why “Ashes to Go”? 
(Or:  why I’m standing in the Great Hall in these strange clothes offering ashes from burnt palm branches) 
Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence. From the Middle Ages it became the custom to begin Lent by being marked in ash with the sign of the cross. The reminder that we are dust turns our attention to the creative power of God, and God’s ability to heal the brokenness in our lives when we offer that brokenness to God. That turning to God is the work of Lent, preparation for the celebration of Easter. 
I’m offering ashes here today because that reminder of need, humility, and healing shouldn’t be confined to a church building. We probably need it more when we are in the middle of our daily business! The ashes we receive here are to remind us throughout the day of our need for God, and of God’s call to us. 
There is much more to the beginning of Lent than ashes alone, and I encourage you to make time for worship with a community of faith, for the support of others and of the great traditions of faith in our work of repentance and renewal. But God meets us not just in worship, but in the midst of life, and we offer the opportunity to remember our faith to those whose schedules make it hard to stop and pray with others today.

I spent an hour standing by the crosswalk in front of the post office, mostly waving to people in passing cars.  Most people simply waved back, but the smiles of recognition and delight from some were priceless.  One man rolled down his window to shout out "what a wonderful and thoughtful idea!", before continuing on.  I was a bit stunned when a woman brought out her checkbook to give a donation to the church before receiving her ashes. All in all it was a great experience. I might have stayed longer than the intended hour, if not for my fingers needing some warmth.  By the end of the hour, three people parked their cars to get out to receive ashes, and another six on foot asked for ashes as well.  I was really pleased with the quality of the conversations.

I know not everyone is comfortable with Ashes to Go, but I am convinced that it is well worth our time in addition to offering our regular services.  I really liked Scott Gunn's post on the subject, excepted below:

The world is more full of seekers and wanderers than it is of disciples. Our task, as Christians, is to share the Good News and preach a gospel of hope in a world without much real hope. If we limit ourselves to those who would cross our thresholds first, we will be limited indeed. The imposition of ashes is not a sacrament. One need not be baptized to receive them. And, it seems to me, the act of receiving an ashen cross and a reminder of one’s mortality is as good an invitation to repent as many will ever receive. That gray cross is a powerful sign, even when that’s all there is. 
Let’s look at it another way. What’s the down side of Ashes to Go? Might we cheapen the experience for “real” Christians? Surely not. Those who have committed themselves to the faith will hardly equate a quick prayer at a train station with a full-on Ash Wednesday liturgy with a Christian community. Might we cheapen the Christian faith for those who are seeking? I don’t think so, though no one could be sure. It seems to me that lay leaders and clergy who don vestments are, in some ways, taking Paul up on his offer to be fools for Christ. And the morning commuter is taking a more than a small risk walking onto a train with an ash cross on her or his forehead. 
If Ashes to Go is a replacement for the Christian community gathering for the beginning of Lent, then I would be worried. That’s not what’s happening though. Rather, Ashes to Go is a complement to the gathered community, an opportunity both to share the need for Good News and the Good News itself. 
With our church finding itself ignored more and more easily in a busy consumer world, I see plenty of good in the act of stepping out into the public square with small containers of ash.

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