Each Ash Wednesday, Episcopalians from numerous congregations take to streets and train stations in an effort that's come to be known as "Ashes to Go." (Read about some past efforts here.)
Among them this year were the Rev. Margaret Schwarzer, Associate Rector for Adult Formation and Membership, and the Rev. Catherine (Cat) Healy, Assistant Rector for Youth and Family, of St. Andrew's Chuch in Wellesley.
"The experience was so much more satisfying than I imagined it might be, and we reached Christians in their busy secular life in a way that was so positive that St. Andrew’s will sponsor it again next year," Schwarzer said. "We felt brave, and I’m glad we tried out this practice." Here's her account:
At 7:40 a.m. on Ash Wednesday, Cat and I took a bowl of blessed ashes and a printed sign with the St. Andrew's logo and the words "Ashes to Go" to the commuter rail line. Over the next hour, we met 21st-century Christians in the midst of their busy lives. They slowed down for a moment or two when they stood in front of us, and we joined them in the tender and holy moment of Ash Wednesday's liturgy: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
"Go in peace," we would say, and they would go back to the boarding of trains, the care of children or the work of their secular day. We also handed out printed cards with the words "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10) and our logo; they were slipped into pockets, or stuffed into mittens. After 40 minutes, we moved to the sidewalk outside Peet's Coffee on Central Street. Among the 20 people we engaged, we met:
• An energetic 20-something charging down the commuter train staircase who caught sight of us, rushed over, said "This is awesome!" and received her ashes with grace.
• A 40-something businessman who stepped up with a quiet smile and received his ashes in silence.
• A couple who pushed back their matching wool hats tomake room for their ashes, which they received in the snowfall.
• A woman in her 40's who spotted us at Peet's when she was in her minivan with her dog. She rolled down her window and said, "This is perfect. My dog is sick, and I'm taking him to the vet. Can you give me ashes through the car window?" We did.
• Two businessmen who told us that they were in a different Christian denomination than we were, but that our witness had sparked their faith.
• A train station worker who said "God bless you, ladies."
I'd anticipated the privilege of seeing the faces of Christian strangers who were caught up in the sacred but stern reminder that our lives are temporal gifts from God. I hadn't anticipated what this train station outreach would do for my own spirit. Offering a religious rite in a secular place is a little risky, but the experience was actually enlivening. A web of stories and shared faith knit me up into a Wellesley Christian community--a community which is larger and closer than I often remember when I am in a secular setting. I did not expect to start my own Lenten days with so much Christian camaraderie. It was a blessing.