Last week on Ash Wednesday, I had one of the most incredible experiences in my life as an ordained person. That’s really not hyperbole. For the first time ever, I joined many of our lay leaders from St. Nicholas to take our tradition of Ash Wednesday to the streets of Hamilton for “Ashes To Go.” Ashes To Go is basically a way for the Church to offer a brief liturgy of the imposition of ashes to people in the community. We gathered at our community outreach facility FOCUS, paired up, and each took a station on the four corners of the block in downtown Hamilton. Two bold members of St. Nicholas, Gabe Clouser and Anne Simpson, took to the streets in their full vestments and walked from business to business inviting people to receive ashes.
We were approached by Episcopalians who weren’t able to come to our Wednesday evening service, by Roman Catholics who couldn’t attend their services, by clients of FOCUS who had shown up to get food or financial assistance, and by other random people who had never gotten ashes before. By the end of the day, we had imposed ashes on over 60 people, more than the number of people who showed up for the service that night.
I was surprised that this event affected me so much, but here are a few reasons why:
1. God’s forgiveness was proclaimed. This is first and foremost of our efforts. One lady was so grateful for us being there. She cried and told us how broken she felt and how receiving the ashes meant that she was forgiven. She understood better than many why we even celebrate Ash Wednesday.
2. People learned about Ash Wednesday. The last person on which I imposed ashes was a pest control worker who asked, “Ok, what’s that?” when I asked her if she wanted ashes. I explained that in the Bible, many people put ashes on their head as a sign of their penitence, and that we do the same as the start to our season of Lent. When I explained it, she exclaimed, “Wow! That’s AWESOME!” and received the ashes. People are hungry to be real, and receiving ashes tells people that in the Episcopal Church, we are sinful, in need of repentance, and forgiven by God’s grace. Ashes To Go taught at least a few people that.
3. People saw that the Episcopal Church is willing to be out in the community. We didn’t do Ashes To Go with the intention of being flashy or to show-off. We took our liturgy to the general public so that they would know who we are and that we believe in repentance and forgiveness. We wore our cassocks and surplices so that people would know that we are not afraid to be who we are in the midst of a rural Southern town where Episcopalians are in the Christian minority. More people are familiar with the liturgical traditions than you might think, yet have negative associations with them. Being present out there gave them a positive association. As one parishioner commented, “We are no longer the ‘frozen chosen.'”
4. The laity were empowered. I asked our Vestry and Lay Eucharistic Ministers if they would be willing to join me, and I was so proud that they overwhelmingly agreed to help. Imposing ashes is not reserved only for clergy. Any lay leader can do it. As our Book of Common Prayer rightly reminds us, lay people are the first order of ministers by virtue of their baptism. Ashes To Go was a great way to give our gifted people the opportunity to exercise their ministry. On Facebook, one person’s friend asked her what her “title” was at her church. She said she was “just” a parishioner and I reminded her that her title is “minister.” To see them go out 2-by-2 and come back telling stories of how God used them was so exciting (and familiar if you remember that Jesus did the same). They even had bigger dreams for next year, taking ashes to Columbus, to the local prison, and to other places of need.
We got lots of stares, lots of funny looks, and a number of rejections, but that didn’t hinder us. It was a beautiful day, not just because of the sunny weather, but because of the people we met. I have never experienced Ash Wednesday like this before, and am praying that next year more people will join us as we communicate the importance of Ash Wednesday and God’s love and forgiveness.