Thursday, March 6, 2014

Reflections on "Ashes-To-Go"

Jim Richardson, left; Peter Carey, right
I must admit I was a little nervous about the idea of vesting up in full Anglican regalia and standing on a street corner with a container of ashes. Yes, I even felt a little strange.

But yesterday, Peter Carey and I took part in a nationwide movement in the Episcopal Church of bringing the ashes of Ash Wednesday to the streets. Our crew put up a sandwich board on the sidewalk with a sign that said "Ashes-To-Go," and under it "Renew your faith this Ash Wednesday -- God loves everyone, no exceptions."

Our location: "The Corner," the sidewalk across from our church that is a major footpath to and fro the University of Virginia.

We stood out there in the morning smearing ashes on foreheads and blessing people. I was out there again in the afternoon, and by then people were lining up. The buzz about it traveled down the street and people came out of the restaurants to get their ashes. They stopped their cars. They told their friends, and more came. We even had a television crew that stopped and filmed a segment.

It was among the most remarkable Ash Wednesdays I've ever had, and among the most extraordinary and holiest days I have ever experienced as a priest.

Don't get me wrong. I adore the Ash Wednesday liturgy. It is among the most moving liturgies we have, and I find it deeply meaningful every year. I wish everyone would come.

But they don't.

So this Ash Wednesday, we brought Ash Wednesday to them. We took the ashes to the streets where the people are. We brought the blessing out of the church building and gave it away.

Isn't that what we are supposed to be about? Giving away blessings? Free of charge? Free of guilt? No strings attached?

Each time I gave the ashes to someone on the sidewalk, I said the traditional words: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." But something inside me had me add a little more:  "And remember God loves you, will heal of you of all that hurts you, and may you know God's love all the days of your life."

Many, many stopped. Students on their way to class, or going to Starbucks. A delivery truck screeched to a halt and the driver got out and asked for ashes. Three young women joggers stopped, and one said (line of the day): "This is so practical."

I lost count at 80 for the day.

I know that some folks are critical of this idea of giving away the ashes. It sounds gimmicky, a little like fast food. But don't be too quick to judge. Holiness sometimes comes in small packages and in unexpected ways and unexpected places. Shouldn't we be about providing windows -- many windows -- into the faith?

Something inside me also changed as stood on the side walk, my thumb gray with ashes. As people stood in front of me, I could see that many were having a "moment." I could see it in their eyes. Some shed a tear, and others smiled. The idea of "prayer unceasing" became true for me. The Holy Spirit moves this way, doesn't she?

James Richardson, Fiat Lux

1 comment:

Will Hocker said...

Thank you for this encouraging post, James. It is indeed a blessing to remind ourselves that we are mortal, that we are not in control - no matter what needs it would seem to serve to imagine that we are, and that both these truths are well understood as they sit atop the perfect loveliness of the ground of being which sustains us all - whether we like it or want it.
I did not know until reading your post that 'ashes to go' has recently become a 'movement'. I do know that Sara Miles of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church began this practice several years ago in the San Francisco Mission neighborhood, and that it has inspired many here to join her. My fear about street corner dirt smudges becoming fashionable on Ash Wednesday is that the Church will once again lock the practice up only to prescribe it in small doses, and only when administered by an approved sacred pharmacist.
For those liberals wringing their hands about this practice's impact in a pluralistic society, I wish to add that imposing ashes on the forehead of one who comes to us freely is not at all akin bullhorn preacher bullying. Secondly, I wonder if such inane levels of political correctness might have some role in our increasingly empty churches. If we fear speaking our truth publicly, no one will know the blessings of the Way. I am out to convert no one, and I am certain as can be that Sara Miles thinks similarly. I hope to be solely about encountering and acknowledging spiritual need in myself and in others.

Again, James, I thank you for sharing with us all the blessings you and those who came to you experienced this past Wednesday. We all yearn for the naked Truth .