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Ashes outside

10 March 2011

Ash Wednesday is one of those weird commemorations in the church calendar that doesn’t correspond to any specific event or person in the life of Jesus or the Church (others include Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, and All Saints’ Day). That is why, in the proper liturgy for the day, it is the Church that issues the call to observe a Holy Lent, rather than God herself. Ash Wednesday is something that the Church does, and so it seems even more bound to the four walls of our church buildings.

Yesterday, a post on the Episcopal Café’s Daily Episcopalian caught my attention. It is the story of a parishioner of Bertie Pearson’s, the founder of EpiscoDisco and a major player in the so-called “emerging” stream of Anglicanism. Last year, Pearson gathered people together and celebrated Ash Wednesday in the middle of a plaza in the Mission District of San Francisco, distributing ashes on the street to anyone who wanted them, businessman and drug dealer alike.

McDonalds was crowded with teenagers and fry cooks and families buying cheap fast food, and people reached out to us eagerly, pulling us over. A Guatemalan woman unwrapped her tiny baby, who she told me was a week and a half old, and held him up. I crossed his forehead with ashes, and took a deep breath, and told the baby he was going to die. And then his mother, like every single person who leaned forward to receive that day, said the same words: thank you.

Why would you say thank you when a stranger tells you that your child is going to die? Because it’s the truth. People say thank you to that hard blessing because finally, despite all the lies of our culture, it means nothing is hidden, or pretend, or made-up anymore.

The truth is that we all go down to the dust. And that we are loved: to the end, and beyond. We’re not alone in life or in death. And when the face of God’s truth is revealed in Christ Jesus, with all its terrible suffering and beauty, you can only say what our neighbors said on Ash Wednesday: Thank you

I was in a state of awe when I read this. Yes!, I thought when I read this. This is what the Church should be doing. Knowing that people are increasingly yearning for a religious experience, we should fling open our doors, walk outside, and let them see what this God we love is about.

That’s all good in theory. But when I got to the Crossing yesterday evening well before service started, praxis set in. Without knowing I had read the post above, the priest and lead organizer of the Crossing — the amazing Rev. Steph Spellers — asked me if I would go distribute ashes to people outside the church. She, two others, and myself took to the sidewalk in cassocks, waiting for people to come up and receive ashes.

I was skeptical at first, as busy Bostonian businessmen bustled by us on their Bluetooths, frankly not even aware of our existence. But then people started slowing down, and as I smiled and said hello, a few made their way over to me, some more hesitantly, some more enthusiastically. I would push my thumb into the glass of ashes, lay my hand on this complete stranger’s head, make the Sign of the Cross on their forehead, and tell them that they would die, that this body of theirs would become like the ash on their forehead. And, as Sara Miles recounted, they would all say “Thank you” as I wished them a blessed Lent.

What struck me was how utterly counter-cultural this whole affair was. Besides the fact that I was dressed in a garment that looks like a dress (and a purple one, at that), with chant playing in the background, the action itself is subversive. A complete stranger would come up to me, and for a moment, we had a connection on the street. And we would bond over our own impending deaths. This was not some vague assertion that the human condition is the inevitability of death. It was my hand on another person’s head, telling them that they personally would die. In a city and a culture that has built itself on individual determination and generally acts as if it is composed of immortal beings, we were facilitating a moment where strangers on the street acknowledged their mortality together.

I don’t know what I think about Ash Wednesday from a theoretical standpoint. The three different streams of theology that have shaped me (i.e. evangelical Calvinism, Anglo-Catholicism, and post-liberal narrative theology) take different stances on what this action might mean. What I do know is that yesterday, God used this counter-cultural experience to show up between me and a handful of complete strangers who I probably wouldn’t have looked in the eye in any other circumstance.

And even if that is all the grace of God is, then thanks be to God for that.

(Photo by Susan Poag for

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 March 2011 13:12

    Well written sir.

  2. Paul permalink
    6 April 2011 14:36

    A great reflection. That challenges me to think about how we encounter the people with liturgy. Engaging those outside the church with the Gospel that transcends it- even go forward boldly following God’s call when we are not always sure what God is up to.


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