This is one of the amazing gifts of being one of the people imposing ashes in an Ashes-to-Go service: to everyone else, the action is “going.” But to you, the action is “coming.” (I wonder if that’s the God’s-eye view of all worship.)
And they did come. The politicians. The poor. The joggers. The people who didn’t want ashes, but did ask if they could take our picture. The people who didn’t want ashes, but who did thank us for being there.
I wondered about that later: why were people so happy to see us, with our albs and collars and cheerful reminders that all of us are going to die someday?
I serve the church in a fairly religious corner of the increasingly secular world. Were people happy to see us in the middle of their sidewalks, with those big ashy crosses on our foreheads and those little bowls of dust, because we evoked nostalgia in them, memories of a time when shops were closed on Sundays and church was what you did on Sundays?
Or were they happy to see us because, hey, we were standing on the steps of our state capitol, where politicians have been failing for eight months to give us a damn budget, with repentance cupped in our hands?
Or were they happy to see us because sometimes, it’s nice to turn the corner where you expect to find the usual daily business happening, and suddenly you find God there, too?
I mean: God is there all the time. We ministry-types do not have the market cornered on God. We do not carry God in our back pockets and neatly unpack the divine along with our sandwich boards and portable prayers.
But nevertheless, something marvelous happened when we stood outside the Capitol with numbed fingers and smiled at passersby and resisted the urge to huddle for warmth in order to stay open to someone, anyone, who might not be able to make it to church that day for a regular Ash Wednesday service.
Some people took their time approaching, eyeing us on their way out from lunch before approaching with caution on their way back. “Are you guys giving ashes?” (Yes.) “Are you Catholic?” (We are Lutherans and Episcopalians.) “Does it matter if I am?” (Not to us.) So many things in our lives take this careful sort of vetting, and by the time we got to the religious bit of the social exchange—a rite that’s accomplished in less than a minute—sometimes it felt almost too short.
On the other hand…
“Do me! Give me ashes!” exclaimed a jogger, slowing mid-run. Her jogging partner kept going without her, and my companion offered her ashes with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” dropping the collect that usually precedes it, and with hasty thanks, the jogger o’erleapt the icy patches in the sidewalk to rejoin her companion, by now a half-a-block ahead.
The objection one often hears about Ashes-to-Go is that it separates the imposition of ashes from its rightful home within the liturgy of the church. And while I do love my liturgy, I sometimes think that we are too precious with it.
I think that liturgy can happen in the streets. I think that the ingredients of three of the fourfold shape of a communion liturgy are right there: we gather (drawn by the Holy Spirit); our prayer and action both performs and responds to God’s word (the collect we read includes two passages from scripture, and “remember that you are dust” is based on Genesis), and God sent each person out in peace.
Jesus was there. Grace was palpable.
Oh, that grace. I keep thinking about whether or not it was “cheap” (a reference to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who certainly knew what he was talking about when he compared cheap and costly grace).
The very fact that the question is so sticky suggests that there’s something to the suggestion that offering people a sign of ashes on the streets doesn’t adequately prepare them for all that Lent is and entails.
But at the same time, I wonder if we can hold two ideas in tension and ask: is the church, too, guilty of enjoying a little cheap grace if we use the lack of all those smells and bells as an excuse for withholding this sign of universal mortality from everyone who can’t make it through our doors in the middle of the workweek?
Are we enjoying it if we insist that liturgy has to look and sound a certain way, and last for a minimum length of time, in order to be taken seriously? Are we excusing ourselves from taking seriously what God’s up to, in the midst of the momentary and surprising, as well as in the polished and choreographed?
Because Jesus was there. Grace was palpable. In the moment when we bowed our heads and prayed, and strangers let me trace a cross on their foreheads and remind them that they would die someday, the less-than-a-minute that was passing was sanctified.
And that is what liturgy is, down at the bare heart of it. God reaching into our lives, and making moments holy. Bringing the chronos of our daily hours into the eternal and strange kairos of God’s time.
I believe it’s no less a miracle that God can do this in less than a moment than that God can do it in a single evening.