Ashes to Go

February 20, 2015

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent during which Christians engage in sacrifice and self-denial. My understanding of the reasoning behind Lenten discipline is that it dates back to the early days of the church during which individuals used Lenten disciplines to “purify” themselves in preparation for baptism at Easter. For the rest of us, it became an opportunity to recall and renew our own commitment to our baptism.

You’ve probably heard about “Ashes to Go,” a program that brings Ash Wednesday out of the church and into the streets. I have to confess, I tend to be a traditionalist and often feel like these types of programs are more a fad or a funky trend than a reflection of our faith. My initial feeling about “Ashes to Go” was that it waters down the spirit of the reflection and repentance of Ash Wednesday (much like my feeling about the “sacrifice” of giving up of chocolate for Lent). That’s not to say that I don’t think a Lenten discipline has value, because I do. It’s just that I’ve had trouble with what actions I consider trite and not all that sincere.

Now, having said that, I need to say that I’ve had a change of heart … a shift in perspective … or more specifically, I was wrong. Yesterday I stood on the steps of La Catedral de San Pablo in Bogota for a two-hour shift of “Ashes to Go.” [There were several other clergy who took shifts throughout the day.] During my time I had some interesting experiences, a few of which I’d like to share.

When I first started my shift a man walked up the steps escorting his elderly mother. She asked if I would give her ashes and then asked if it was okay if she went into the Cathedral to pray. Before I could reply, she indicated that she wasn’t Anglican and so wasn’t sure if it was okay for her to pray in the Cathedral. Of course, I invited her in and encouraged her to take her time. I also invited her to speak with me if she had any questions or needed anything. She and her son proceeded to kneel in the first set of pews and prayed for about fifteen minutes. When they left, they asked about Sunday services and thanked me both for my hospitality and for the ashes.

A short while later, a couple of young women stopped and asked if I had ashes. There is a nursing school up the street from the Cathedral and they were both in nurse’s uniforms and carrying book bags. So I think it’s safe to assume they were nursing students. They asked a few questions about church and Ash Wednesday, and then asked if it was okay if they went into the Cathedral to pray. After they received ashes I extended an invitation to enter the Cathedral for prayer as well as to ask any questions. Their only question was about Sunday service times.

At one point, a taxi drove up and stopped in front of the church steps. The passenger rolled down his window and asked if I would walk over to the car so he could receive ashes. As I walked down the steps, I noticed he was praying while waiting for me. After I imposed ashes, the taxi driver slid over into the passenger seat, rolled down the window and stated, “Me, too!” After imposing ashes to the driver, we all prayed together for a minute or two, and I offered them a blessing, at the passenger’s request. As the taxi drove off, both were smiling and the passenger shouted to me, “Muchas Gracias, Padre!”

There was a steady flow of people throughout my time on the Cathedral steps. I had elderly visitors who ask for a prayer for their health after I imposed ashes. A young man on crutches and without a leg climbed the steps before I had a chance to tell him I’d come down to him.  Several mothers pushing strollers stopped for ashes and were grateful when I offered a blessing for their babies. But the most powerful experience I had was with an older man who first wanted to talk with me. He told me he was separated from his wife and wondered if it was okay for him to receive ashes. Based on my experience with other people in Colombia who have been separated from the church for many years due to a separation or divorce (if you were married in the Roman Catholic Church you can’t get divorced without permission from the church, which is rarely given), I had the sense that this man was spiritually troubled. We had a brief discussion about the church’s stand on separation and divorce after which he asked, with tears in his eyes, if I would be willing to impose ashes, which I did. We stood together in silence for a short time just looking at each other, and then he walked away.

Again, I have to say that based on my experience I was wrong about “Ashes to Go!” I think my engagement with folks on the street was as powerful for me as it was for them. People seemed to long for an opportunity to step away from the world for a few minutes and reflect. I realized that there are those who might want to be in church, but for whatever reason feel estranged from the institution. There were young people longing for a sense of spirituality in their lives, who used the opportunity to have an encounter with Christ. And I think there were people simply longing for a connection with God. I watched people walk by, reflect a moment, and then return to ask for ashes. I prayed with people, offered blessings, and invited people to sit in the Cathedral for private prayer and reflection. There were children on their way home from school, college students, employees from local businesses, people young and old, male and female, those estranged from the institutional church and some who are parishioners. While I learned some of their stories, and knew others, there were many of whom I know nothing about what is, or was, on their hearts. But what I do know is that God was there with us today. I had an encounter with the Holy, and it changed my heart. I stand corrected.

4 Responses to “Ashes to Go”

  1. Rev. Sabeth Says:

    Ted, what a wonderful and holy experience. Thank you for sharing it!


  2. Maria Says:

    Beautiful experience and beautifully recounted.


  3. Dianne Smith Says:

    Hi Ted,

    I am grateful to read this piece because I was (sheltered as we all are on marvelous Martha’s Vineyard) utterly ignorant of the “ashes to go” concept until Ash Wednesday this week.

    I was heading off-island that day, freezing in a long line of people waiting to board the ferry. It seemed like a sudden gust of Arctic wind had swept the interim rector of Grace Church, VH, and his two sidekicks (sorry, crucifer and verger) onto the tarmac and into our midst.

    All three gentlemen are tall, gangly, over 65, and their vestments were whipping in the wind. It was a tad disorienting — sort of like being confronted by Ichabod Crane in 3-D.

    The next thing I knew, the priest was opening up his pyx-ful of ashes, the verger was distributing Lenten leaflets, and several curious onlookers were gathering — some of whom did, in fact, receive the imposition of ashes.

    Unfortunately, there was a good bit of accompanying self-conscious laughter; one recipient said, “I’m flying tomorrow; I’d better do this,” and at least half of the people (it’s a small island, remember) were Roman Catholic. Fine by me, but I was a little concerned that their own priest might be dismayed to learn of it…

    In any case, my personal reaction to those particular people at particular venue was less than positive. It felt like an immature show, not a penitential office. Guess I’m just an old fart. Thank you for sharing a different perspective, Ted!



  4. honemission Says:

    Thanks, Ted. I can see my own attitudes and perceptions reflected in yours. My mind is opened and my heart changed.

    I also see my reflection in Diane’s observations. You were standing in an appropriate place for what you were doing. The VH people were not. And inappropriate actions always engender awkward laughter. You imposed ashes; they imposed both themselves and an unfamiliar liturgy. You invited, they insisted. And you were not even offering a “penitential office” – you were offering an opportunity to people to connect with their spiritual side and with the Holy Spirit, on their terms, at their comfort level, if they chose to do so. Gracias a Dios


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