Ash Wednesday 2013
Recently, I began to consider seriously the idea of participating in “Ashes to Go”–something that has become a national (ecumenical) movement that began with an ecumenical clergy group in St. Louis, Missouri. (Yes, there is a website: www.ashestogo.org.) I threw the question out on Facebook for consideration. Why would you take something out of its liturgical context into a secular environment? The responses were fascinating, and truth be told, I had already 90% decided that I would do this on Ash Wednesday–my own theological reflection being that I could justify it if it meant we were just taking the presence of Christ and the Church into the world as a visible symbol.
So with the help of two particular parishioners (thanks, Susan and Doug!), I ordered two laminated posters, carefully poured some ashes into a little plastic container, and crafted a tri-fold brochure about St. Philip’s in case anyone wanted some reading material on the train. I invited parishioners to join me at the Laurel Marc train station between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. this morning.
Dressed warmly (layers!), we gathered on the train platform and were joined soon by a photographer sent from the local paper.
For over an hour, we stood, chatted, and watched people arriving to get on the trains bound for Baltimore or Washington, DC. I had wondered how people would respond to our presence with a large signboard and a group of church folks (including a woman wearing a clergy collar!) Most people hurried by. It turns out that lots of folks sit in their warm cars until the last possible moment, then hurry up the steps to the platform within a few minutes of the approaching train.
Many averted eyes. Some were plugged into their I-Phones. Some caught our eyes and said “good morning” or nodded in response to our cheerful “good morning.” One woman, as she walked by, said, “That’s a nice idea,” but when I asked, “Do you want ashes?”, she replied, “No thank you” and kept going. Another man said he was Roman Catholic and said “I would like ashes but I’m Catholic. Do you think I can get them?” I said, “Of course you can.” So he came close, I asked his name, then said a prayer for him and made the sign of the cross with ashes on his forehead.
Not too many people came over for ashes. In one sense, I was disappointed. Yet as I stood there, I prayed for people who work on the trains. I prayed for those who would come and go this day to work on the trains. Surely all of those who hurried from their cars have some challenges in their lives–just as those in our little group who gathered to show God’s love in the world. I prayed for my parishioners who had gotten up early to join me on that train platform. I prayed for those who will gather in our sacred spaces later today at Ash Wednesday services, in what might be called a more liturgical context.
I was thinking, as I prayed, that God does not call me or anyone else to be anything other than faithful. It is not my responsibility to “save” anyone (whatever that means to different folks–and that’s another topic for discussion another day.) It is not my responsibility to coerce anyone to receive ashes at 7:00 on a weekday morning. I am just called to be a faithful Christian. That sometimes means that I have the privilege and honor of presiding at God’s Table in a historic worship space.That sometimes means I roll out of bed at 5:15 a.m., dress in warm layers, take my travel mug of hot tea and go stand on a train platform. Holding a little plastic container with dark ashes in it, with hands that are getting colder by the moment is a liturgical act, after all.
Since last summer at General Convention in Indianapolis, I have thought often about what our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said. She said that we have to stop asking “What would Jesus do?” and instead, go and DO what Jesus DID. During his life, what Jesus did was to go and be with all kinds of people–even when they ignored him, or averted their eyes, or hurried past, hoping he would not speak.
He did speak. He spoke with his life. On this Ash Wednesday, as people got on trains, sat down and then looked out the windows at our little faithful group gathered on the platform, I pray that our presence somehow spoke of the love and faithfulness of Jesus the Christ.