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Ash Wednesday: taking it to the streets

Ash Wednesday: taking it to the streets

As churches are preparing for Lent with the last parties of Shrove Tuesday pancakes, Mardi Gras beads, Carnival masks, Taco Tuesday, and Fat Tuesday, they are also burning the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday processions, smashing the ashes with mortar and pestle and sieving out the larger bits. All to get ready to offer the news that we remember we are dust and to dust we shall return. Here is a round up of activities and thoughts about the season of Lent and why it is more than just giving up chocolate:

Sara Miles, author and essayist for Episcopal Café invites you to share your photos, experiences and stories of taking ashes to the street at City of God. As she commented at a recent story on The Lead:

One of the most important things for me about doing Ash Wednesday outdoors has been the opportunity to witness the Spirit moving in the streets. Rather than focusing entirely on whether I’m “carrying” the right message out to “the people,” as if they’ve simply been waiting passively for Episcopalians to bring them the right theology, I’ve been privileged to listen more attentively to other peoples’ theologies, experiences and faith.

God’s people are already having plenty of conversations with God, outside of our church buildings. I hope our evangelism, on Ash Wednesday and always, will include ways to listen in.

Emily Mellott, priest in Chicago, offers another place to share your stories of Ash Wednesday. Ashes to Go:

cropped-AshesPG1.jpg“Ashes to Go” is about bringing spirit, belief, and belonging out from behind church doors, and into the places where we go every day. It’s a simple event with deep meaning, drawing on centuries of tradition and worship to provide a contemporary moment of grace.

Mellott relates a history of Ashes to Go here.

On Ash Wednesday 2010, three Chicago-area Episcopal congregations independently took ashes and prayer to suburban train stations, Prayer on the street cornerand discovered commuters hungry for a moment of prayer, renewal and grace. Those who had no time to attend services or had forgotten about the tradition were delighted to receive ashes with prayer as they began their day. Many responded with tears or smiles of gratitude that the church would come to them.

Leaders in the three congregations who offered Ashes to Go agreed that this was too good to keep to ourselves, and we decided to invite others to join us. Churches in San Francisco, St. Louis and elsewhere had offered similar ministries for years, but in 2011, the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago chose to coordinate Ashes outreach, and more than 25 Episcopal congregations and organizations around the Chicago area offered ashes on street corners and train platforms, coffee shops and outside grocery stores.

The Very Rev. Sam Candler of Atlanta offers his thoughts about how You Are the Ashes to Go:

For the past several years, some media outlets have used “ashes to go” as the most interesting thing they could find when they looked for an angle on the news that people might actually read or watch. “Ashes to go” has come to be the name given to that practice whereby some priests, on Ash Wednesday, have not only imposed ashes upon the foreheads of those who come to church, but the priests have also gone out to the streets and sidewalks of their communities and offered the imposition of ashes to anyone walking by who desired it.

The practice is fine with me. I find it neither astonishing nor irreverent, nor even unadvisable. If it works to spread some part of the Christian gospel, that is a good thing. In light of the continuing coverage of Ash Wednesday people, however, I want to suggest two things to Christians, and to anyone, who is drawn to the latest story.

One suggestion is this: Let us, the church, be careful about allowing other organizations to tell our story, especially when those organizations –some media outlets—merely want to check off the “Let’s see if the Christians are doing anything new or titillating this year” box. The way the ritual is administered is not the most important thing.

Which leads to my second suggestion: On Ash Wednesday, the real “ashes to go” are not the ashes themselves; the real ashes are the people. The real ashes are us, those of us who take the time, even if only for a moment, to acknowledge that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori reflects on Ash Wednesday at Day 1

I would invite you this Lent to think about your Lenten practice as an exercise in solidarity with all that is – with other human beings and with all of creation. That is most fundamentally what Jesus is about. He is about healing and restoring that broken world.

And (pp. 6-7) one last story about a church in the Diocese of Maryland and why they will be doing Ashes to Go again this year:

It was cold and rainy at the Brunswick MARC train station on Ash Wednesday – the kind of rain that occasionally mixed with a bit of snow. It was Grace Church’s second year of offering Ashes to Go for commuters coming in from Washington, D.C., on the afternoon trains.

When the last train pulled up, the first woman off immediately made eye contact with me and walked toward me with great intention. I could tell from her thinning hair and dark circles under her eyes that cancer was a part of her story; but the smile on her face told me it wasn’t the whole story.

“Thank God you are here!” she exclaimed with a smile.

Read the whole story here – pp 6-7)

See also Daily Episcopalian and Speaking to the Soul for more on Lent.


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David Allen

“How about inviting people “on the streets” into the church at some point?”

Why do you jump to the conclusion that isn’t being done?

But if your parish were to decide to do such a thing, are you volunteering to sit in vigilance so everyone is safe? There are plenty of churches every day with stories to share about interacting with folks with psychological/emotional problems and not all of them are good.

Bro David

barbara snyder

I mean, there are lots of people who might like to come in to the church – people who hang around the fringes of the church every day, in fact, in case nobody was aware. People with psychological and emotional problems, for instance, for whom the church might be a refuge.

They need a safe place to be to get away from “the streets” and to have somebody to talk with.

barbara snyder

It’s so utterly bizarre to see this every year – as if “getting out in the streets” were some kind of educational field trip for Episcopalians.

How about inviting people “on the streets” into the church at some point?


I participate in Ashes to Go. I think it’s a good practice on many levels.

I wonder about the media presence though, primarily for those receiving. I try to avoid the film crews and photo clicks, and I imagine others do to.

Brian Sholl

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