Last year, I stood outside the doors of Grace Church before Ash Wednesday services to offer ashes to passers-by. I wasn’t self-consciously participating in “Ashes to Go.” Rather, I did it because it was another way I saw of reaching out to our community during the protests and political upheaval.
This year, as more jumped on the bandwagon and the practice received considerable publicity, I pondered my own participation and decided in the end against. My reasons paralleled those of Tim Schenck. In addition, Grace is situated such that passersby could easily come in for the service–office workers or students headed to lunch, for example. Today was a nice day and as is my custom I stood on sidewalk before the service in my vestments, greeting people as they came to church and greeting passers-by as well.
As I stood there, I was greeted by a man who asked me if I had ashes. He had been among those who received them from me last year and was hoping to receive them again. He was very disappointed. We chatted for a few minutes and he stopped inside the church to pray, although he couldn’t stay for the service.
It was a powerful encounter for me, a reminder that the assumptions we make about the effects of our actions, liturgical or not, are unpredictable. We all know that sermons we struggle over and think are awful are often experienced as transforming; we know that pastoral encounters we wish we could have done over sometimes are healing moments. We know that even the liturgies that we botch can be channels of God’s grace. There were people in both of our services today (so far) that I’ve never seen before, and probably will never see again. How different is that from an encounter with a passer-by, a brief prayer, an ashed thumb-print cross, and the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” God can use that, even that as a channel of grace, and who am I to prevent it?
So next year, I’ll be on the street corner again, offering ashes to go. I won’t be participating in the hype, however.