Where I live, February can be a harsh month: snow mixed with freezing rain and raw wind. Winter drags on even as the days get longer. It seems like spring will never get here. After months of dirty snow and bare branches, I long for the green of leaves and grass again. On top of that, this week is the beginning of the season of Lent, a somber time.
Then I read the newspaper these days and see how many people are desperate for peace for themselves, their neighborhoods, and the world, but it seems impossible to attain. There is violence in our communities and across the oceans–armed conflict in so many places, including the city where I live. I long for a word of hope and I think many people do. As communities of faith, can we offer a sign of something transcendent, of God’s love and forgiveness?
Over the last few years, some congregations here in the Chicago area have taken to distributing ashes on Ash Wednesday in public locations–outdoors at train stations and in parks. In the cold slush on crowded city streets, you can see pastors and lay ministers in stoles and sometimes cassocks or albs (depending on the Christian franchise) offering passers-by the marking of their foreheads with ashes. Some offer to say a prayer with them.
It’s a very public display of our faith and a reminder of the season of Lent. Some folks are surprised (and maybe a little appalled—that sort of thing belongs in a church building!) but it amazes me how many folks are open to it. Some are lapsed Catholics (there’s a lot of that demographic here in Chicago) and some people only vaguely know what ashes mean. In some cases, it leads to conversation or an invitation to stop by for worship.
What do you think? Would you think it was weird if someone you didn’t know asked you if you wanted ashes? Would you be offended? Can this be a way of bringing Jesus out of the church building and into the communities where people live and work? Or is this the latest liturgical fad? What will you do this Lent to express your faith?
Kate Elliott is editor of Gather magazine.