Updated. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. The imposition of ashes is a powerful symbol of our “mortality and penitence” and a powerful reminded of our need for God. We have heard of several churches in Chicago and St. Louis who have found ways of bring the ancient rite to busy places where people live and work.
A story in the Chicago Tribune tells of the Rev. Lane Hensley of the Church of the Transfiguration in Palos Park, Illinois came out in the early morning to the commuter rail station and distributed ashes to commuters on their way to work.
Then we heard that two other Chicago priests, the Rev. Emily Mellott, of Calvary Episcopal Church in Lombard, IL, and the Rev. George Smith of St. Mark’s in Glen Ellyn, who had the same idea (independently of each other!) and acted on it. Mellot described her experience:
I was pretty sure we’d be well-received by commuters, and we certainly were. Lots of folks asked variations on “do those work for Catholics, too??”
I’d originally thought that if we didn’t crash and burn, I’d invite the local clergy association to do ecumenical ashes next year, but it was such a good experience for the five (5!) lay people (ranging from 15 to 65+) who got up early to do ashes with me that I want to make sure there’s always room for our lay volunteers.
She also said:
I thought of this as a service to our immediate neighbors – people like those of my parishioners who told me that they wanted to wear their ashes all day, since they rarely have such a way to wear their faith – but can’t be at church and commute at the same time. But it turned out to be a matter of real public interest, and even debate about where the church belongs and how we meet God.
Smith said his effort in Glen Ellyn, IL, was an Episcopal and Lutheran joint venture. Two clergy from St. Mark’s, two from Faith Lutheran. They set up near the Metra station, across from Starbucks with a table draped in purple with a cross and they handed out a flyer about Lent with information about their two churches.
In St. Louis, another ecumenical effort called “Ashes to go” provided the imposition of ashes for those who work downtown. A story on the Diocese of Missouri website describes how this came about.
Ashes-to-Go is an ecumenical, short, Ash Wednesday service with imposition of ashes held on the corner of Grand and Arsenal streets in St. Louis. Now in its fourth year, clergy and laity from St. John’s Episcopal Church-Tower Grove participate. “South Grand neighborhood in the City of St. Louis is a perfect place to bring church to the streets,” says the Rev. Teresa Danieley, rector at St. John’s-Tower Grove….
The initial idea for Ashes To Go arose from a session of an ecumenical clergy Bible study group that Danieley attends weekly. The clerics were discussing differences in sacraments, and about how both Roman Catholics and Protestants may receive the imposition of ashes. “So, we were joking about doing an “Ashes Drive Thru” and then we thought, well why not? We have a great business district. And it is a way to bring church to the streets. As Christians we are called to GO and make disciples and to show God’s love to everyone. We are doing Ashes to Go in order to provide a unique opportunity to pause, to mark our mortality, and celebrate the blessings of this life – even in the midst of a busy work day,” said Danieley.
Hensley talked with us about his experience at the commuter rail platform via e-mail.
We asked him why he thought people responded as they did:
That’s easier to answer after the fact than it would have been immediately before. We showed up with a box full of ERD Lenten Meditation books and some written materials (see attached). My anxiety level was very high, irrationally so. I was worried that no one would do it, and that I’d just look foolish. I also was a little worried that someone might be so offended that they would complain to Metra (the train line), and that Metra might even call the police. I’m the police chaplain in Palos Park, and greased the wheels on that front by speaking ahead of time to the cop who was scheduled to be the “officer in charge” of that shift and make sure he assigned himself to the beat that covers the Metra station. He’s a friend, and I knew he wouldn’t actually arrest me!
My anxiety was completely misplaced. People were really into it. They were grateful. Some talked about long lines at churches downtown that they now could avoid, and others clearly had no intention of getting ashes, but were really into the idea of doing it on the train platform. I think the ashes themselves are a powerful symbol of an internal reality. People respond to
the ashes because they name a condition that people know is true. At some times, I worry that the ashes are a way of “disfiguring your faces, as the hypocrites do,” but that worry presupposes that people wear ashes as a sign of spiritual pride. I don’t think they do. I think they wear ashes, ironically, as a way of coming clean. It’s like the early steps of AA that
involve an acknowledgment of reality and powerlessness.
I love the Ash Wednesday liturgy, but sometimes I think it’s beating a dead horse: People come to get the ashes because they already know they need them. Offering them on the train platform feels like welcoming home the prodigal son. I think people responded because we offered it as a gift and not as another responsibility. Most people actually lit up and looked joyful
when we asked if they wanted the ashes, and some even looked very relieved. A couple of people teared up. Almost everyone thanked us. The lady at the coffee concession was Greek Orthodox, and although their Lent hasn’t started yet, she was thrilled by it, and kept giving us free refills.
What did you say to them?
“Good morning. Would you like to get your ashes?”
“Remember that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.”
“Thank you — Have a great morning.”
And we answered their questions.
Did you just stand by the sign and wait for people?
No. We moved around, but mostly hovered around one door because almost everyone passed through it. The door we chose was between the parking lot pay boxes and the coffee stand. Ninety percent of the passengers passed within 10 feet of us. We moved around when we saw groups of people who didn’t seem to realize we were there. If I had it to do over again, I wouldhave ditched the sign. When you’re 6′ 5″ and stand in a giant Batman-esque
purple chasuble on Ash Wednesday morning, people know why you’re there. The sign was overkill.
What was your most memorable moment?
There were a few. A couple of people declined the ashes after asking where we were from and determining that I wasn’t Roman Catholic. My organist was helping me, and one woman let him give her ashes because he’s Roman Catholic. Whatever works. One guy identified himself as Baptist and asked why we put ashes on people’s foreheads. I talked about ashes as a sign of repentance, and said that the forehead is where we acknowledge our mortality on the same spot where we’re sealed [for resurrection] by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.
The first time a train stopped to pick up passengers, the conductors got off and asked for ashes, which I didn’t expect at all. When a train pulls away, it makes quite a wind, and that almost blew away my ashes. I clapped my hand down on top just in time.
As we were working on the last departing train we intended to serve, my cell phone rang, and I let it roll to voice mail. When we hit a lull, I listened to the message, and it was John, my friend from the police department. He was calling to let me know that a woman in town, the mother of some friends of mine, had just died and that the police and ambulances were at the house.
As I hung up on the call, John walked up on the train platform. He knew I was there, and was coming to let me know personally because he wanted to be sure I had the message. As if the ashes themselves weren’t enough of a reminder of our mortality, that one got my attention. A parishioner died later in the morning. It was a busy day of remembering and responding to
Most memorable for me, though, was the look on people’s faces. They were surprised, and they were pleased. It felt incredibly intimate to me. It felt like standing on holy ground, like being caught in the middle between a God who wants so much to embrace and welcome his beloved, and people who so urgently want to be found and welcomed home.
Here is a fascinating discussion on WGN-AM “John Williams” radio show. What do you think of “ashes on the go?”