More than 70 Episcopal parishes in 18 states will bring Ash Wednesday to the streets, kicking off the Lenten season with a twist.
They’ll offer the Christian sign of repentance — a smudged cross of ashes on the forehead — to anyone who seeks it in train stations, coffee shops and other public spots.
Dubbed Ashes to Go, it’s a contemporary spin on the Ash Wednesday practice followed chiefly in Episcopal, Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran denominations.
Taking ashes on the road started in St. Louis in 2007 when the Rev. Teresa K.M. Danieley decided that if people can grab breakfast on the go, why shouldn’t they be able to get their ashes in a flash? “It started sort of half-jokingly, but it became something pretty profound,” she told Religion News Service.
And popular. Last year the Rev. Jeff Lee, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, stood in full vestments in the rain at the corner of Rush and Huron. He recalls, “The very first person was a cab driver who pulled to a halt and shouted. ‘Lent! I completely forgot!’ “
The Rev. Emily Mellott of Calvary Church in Lombard, Ill., and author of AshesToGo.org, describes the simple sign as a profound experience.
“The ashes are an invitation, opening the door for us to the practices of Lent, a first step, a reminder of our mortality and God’s creative power. We take that invitation and that core truth out into places where people really need that,” says Mellott, who plans to stand at the Lombard commuter train stop on Wednesday.
“People who come to church already get the forgiveness thing,” she says. “But people at the train station going into a full day, to all the places where we fail and realize we are not perfect. Now they can start the day with a reminder that that is not the last word.”
Anyone can accept the ashes although, Mellott says, non-Christians tend not to seek them. Still, she says, “if anyone does, we view it as an act of evangelism, and we make it clear this is a part of the Christian tradition.”
In Dayton, Ohio, Christ Episcopal Church will host an ecumenical effort with Baptist, United Methodist and Presbyterian ministers. In College Station, Texas, St. Thomas Episcopal Church is offering tacos with the ashes, according to Religion News Service.
Don’t look for Catholic priests on the corners, however. Catholic teaching is that ashes should be received within a church, during a Mass or a liturgical service involving scripture, prayer and calls to repentance, says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
There are no statistics on ashes distributed, but Walsh estimates, “Probably more people come for ashes than for Sunday Mass.”
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