Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. – Joel 2
But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him – Luke 15
I was prepared to be underwhelmed. The raucous Facebook debates and snarky commentaries (like this latest in the Living Church) left me suspicious of “Ashes to Go.” I was prepared to feel let down by the hype, prepared to agree that “take out” sacramental acts were indeed the equivalent of spiritual junk food – alluring, but ultimately unsatisfying.
But the Spirit had something else in store. On a frigid winter day, with many layers under my alb and a trusty verger and seminarian by my side, I put ashes on the foreheads of nearly 200 souls at the Capitol South metro station in Washington, DC.
They were lawyers and government workers, tourists and interns (lots and lots of interns). A custodian at the National Archives. A security guard from the Library of Congress. A Pentagon worker who missed early mass “because of an emergency briefing about ISIS.” Whole families away from their home churches, on college tours and vacations.
There was Tammi, who lives on the street near the Capitol. In addition to ashes, she was hoping for a cup of coffee and a blessing. “What should I pray for today?” I naively asked her. “I need everything, Father,” she said with an exhausted smile.
Some others came with tears. Some with smiles. Some with elaborate excuses about why they missed church. Some admitting they hadn’t been in a very, very long time. Many with heads bowed and eyes closed. At times, there was a line five or six people long.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Beloved child of God, walk in peace this day and always.”
With the ashes, we gave a booklet of prayers. And over and over, people said “Thank you. Thank you for being here.” Or they simply nodded, with a weary look that said silently: I needed this; I needed you here today
But what should I say back? “You’re welcome” seemed too tame a response to the moment we just shared. I found myself responding, over and over again, “We are here for you.”
We are here for you, right where you needed us – on this one day a year when we put dirt on our faces to remind us just how crazy our lives have become, how out of control, how far from God’s dream for us.
We are here for you – on this day when our protective masks are tarnished, when the dirty mortality behind our power suits and sunglasses gets revealed for all the world to see. The day we remember that Tammi and I are equal before God, beloved creations, dust from dust. The day when God calls us ALL back home.
“The people who forget our common mortality—and by extension our common humanity—are usually those of us in positions of power,” my colleague Sarah Monroe reminds us in her blog, A Wandering Minister. “In situations of oppression, when people begin to lose hope, there is hope in words that remind us that no human person or institution lasts forever. That oppression itself cannot last forever.”
For me, there was power in “Ash Wednesday on the Street.” (Maybe “Ashes-to-Go” just needs a re-branding). Power in naming fragility in the halls of government. Power in breath and touch. Power in the awkwardness of literally standing in front of people on their daily commute, with dirt in hand, saying by our presence: “Return to God” AND “We are here for you.”
And for those who came to receive, power in accepting the invitation to stop, turn around, and publicly undertake an act of worship. This seems to be what Ash Wednesday is all about.
There are limitations, for sure. There is no guarantee that any one of those 200 ash-covered souls will do more than stop for a moment on the sidewalk. No guarantee that those ashes will lead to prayer, or fasting, or giving alms; no guarantee that they will prompt a conversion that will motivate the ash-covered one to take on God’s desired fast of justice and mercy.
But I know it was right for us to be there, for me to be there. It was right for the church to ease the first step, to clear the way for a first turn back toward God. Lord knows the journey of faith is a struggle. That sacrifice and challenge lie ahead.
But it begins with a return, a possibility of a different future. Like the prodigal father in the parable, I believe Jesus would want us to run out ahead of the returning one, to be ready with a smile and an embrace. “I am here for you.”
Return, because of God’s steadfast love, the prophet Joel says. Turn, because there is mercy. Repent, because there is grace.
I understand the desire for commitment. I hear the critique that ashes to go are cheap grace, but I think the opposite is true. At last at Capitol South, I saw visibly the repentance, the turning. Looking up from their phones. Taking their headphones off. Looking me in the eye. Allowing an unknown priest to mark their bodies with a sign of mortality. Sometimes, with a tear. Sometimes, with a smile.
Because we were there, because the church cared enough about them to stand in the cold and stand in their way. Because of this, they could take a first step. It was just a beginning, for sure, but an important one, because commitment comes after the turning, and after the embrace by the grace of God.
I hope the people of St. Mark’s will be out on the streets way more than once a year. Not just at the subway, all dressed up in alb and stole, with ashes and prayer on offer. But in the alleys and cafes, the bus stops and heating grates, the corridors of power and the custodial rooms; blessing, loving, challenging, organizing, uniting the people of God. In our common mortality, our common blessedness, our common mission.
But first, return to God, knowing that God is there for you – and so are we.
#AshesToGo #HereForYou #ReturnToGod