Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ashes Addendum

AP Photo / Matt Rourke
Much ink has been spilled in the last week over the pros and cons of "Ashes-to-Go," an event in which churches venture out into their communities to administer ashes to the public, so I won't duplicate those comments here.  Instead, I'd like to share just a few snapshots of people I met during the day to illustrate why I think this effort is worth undertaking.  More than any clever theological or missiological rationale I may have articulated, friends and colleagues have been captivated by the stories of my encounters with specific people, which they have encouraged me to share here on the Web.

I have always said that theology begins at the front door, because it is how we greet people that sets their expectations for how they are going to be treated once they have come inside the church building.  It says, "this is how we treat each other in this Christian community."  However, being out in the world without the protection of standing in the narthex of one's home turf alters the balance of power considerably.  People feel much braver to ask questions and challenge you if you're simply standing on the sidewalk as they scuttle by on their way to work, to lunch, or to run errands.  People surprise you, sometimes pleasantly and sometimes not so pleasantly, but it is always instructive.

Here are some of the highlights:
AP Photo / Matt Rourke
  • An African American woman abruptly pulled up to the curb in her huge SUV, slammed on the brakes, and jumped out to ask me if I would come to administer ashes to her very elderly mother, who was quite feeble.  So, I climbed into the driver's seat of the SUV, introduced myself, shook the mother's hand, and imposed ashes on her forehead.  Visibly grateful, the elderly woman said, "Bless you, you have answered all my prayers today!"
  • Even though we were clearly identified as an Episcopal Church, most people didn't hesitate at all and came right up to receive.  However, like many Roman Catholics that day, one middle-aged woman asked if she was allowed to receive ashes from me.  I explained that I knew that she was not allowed to receive communion, but since the imposition of ashes was an act of piety signifying repentance, rather than a sacrament, I said that I didn't see any reason why she shouldn't receive if she wanted to.  She was clearly conflicted, but after studying the people's faces as they received ashes, she finally got in line, smiled, and said, "well, I guess I'm in too!" 
  • During the morning rush hour, I asked a young woman if she wanted ashes, and she told me she was Muslim, at which point I noticed she was wearing a hijab on her head.  About an hour later, when I was talking to a man from a neighboring parish who had stopped by St. Clement's to pray, she approached us smiling and handed each of us a Qur'an.  I thanked her for her kind gift.  It was an incredible moment of mutual respect and generosity.
  • I can recall only one hurtful moment--a hit-and-run event--when a passerby, assuming we were Roman Catholics, quipped without stopping, "So, you took a break from molesting kids in the sacristy?" to which I responded without skipping a beat, "we're Anglicans; we don't do that."  My tone wasn't snarky or bitter; I was just setting the record straight.
  • A homeless man came up to me grinning, and after I had given him ashes, he said, "Bless you, my brother! Praise Jesus!" which was a tremendous joy.
  • Several people who did not speak English, including an elderly man from eastern Europe and an elderly Italian woman came up to me, and even though I could not utter anything in their languages, they knew exactly what this ritual was all about and reacted as if they understood the words I was saying.  It just goes to show you that sometimes the Holy Spirit takes over to fill in the gaps.
  • As we were making our way back to the church at the end, a man shouted to me from the cab of a very large delivery truck that was stopped at the stop light.  He couldn't get out of his truck, but he wondered if I'd give him ashes.  It was a bit tricky, but I clambered up the side of the vast truck in my ecclesiastical finery and administered ashes through the driver's side window.  Then, the light changed to green, and he moved on. 
  • And finally, among my favorite moments were those when Jewish ladies passed by us at various points and said, "I'm Jewish, but I think what you're doing is wonderful!"
These vignettes remind us that we often have to live our way into the mystery of the Christian faith.  It is very easy to intellectualize it and lose sight of its affective and experiential dimensions, which can teach us much about what it means to follow Jesus.  It is in the encounter with other people that we are invited into a deeper experience of the transformative power of the Gospel message of good news for the poor, the wounded, the captive, and the dejected of this world, who are sometimes we ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. I read about this happening on your side of the pond and wonder how many people here would even recognise what was going on, let alone stop to avail themselves of the service. Very few, I imagine.