Taking Ash Wednesday Public

January 17th, 2013

Sometimes making a difference is as simple as trying something new. As simple as stepping outside our comfort zone and trying. As simple as going to Starbucks.

Ash Wednesday has always been a powerful day to me. As uncomfortable as it can be, I relish the chance to publicly wear my faith. The metaphors of dying to self, of repentance, of new life rising from the ashes, all stretch and grow my faith. It begins 46 days of reflection, of penitence, of forgiveness and grace. It is a sacred rite that I look forward to each year. Perhaps this is because my faith has been so influenced by the tangible. I have been changed more by actions than words. So communion, baptism, ashes, mission projects, and community have all contributed to my faith in ways I can describe. I’ve always felt Christ’s power in ashes being placed on my head, and I have always been thankful for the witness that I have worn as I have walked out the door.  

But still, I’ve always wondered why Ash Wednesday was an evening service. Maybe your church is different, offering ashes in the morning, but I have never been in a church that had anything but a 7 pm Ash Wednesday Service. It means that we place a witness on people’s heads and then send them home to go wash them off before bed.

So, last year, I decided to try something different. I decided to offer ashes in the morning. In public. At Starbucks. Posting on our church’s website and Facebook Page as well as the bulletin, I invited our congregation to come have ashes imparted at a central Starbucks.

“It’s not sacred,” some told me. “You have to impart ashes in the church. In a service. Its meaningless without context. Like drive-thru communion.”

“You can’t impart ashes outside a church! Will they even understand what they are doing? Will they really let you do that?”

I heard so many concerns, but I had made up my mind. We were going to do something new and different.

And, in the end, they were wrong. It was powerful. Sacred. Transformational. Meaningful. Life-changing.

I walked into Starbucks before the sun rose. Finding a quiet spot in the corner, I centered myself and ordered my regular drink. I took a few deep breaths and waited. I read the Ash Wednesday scriptures to calm my nerves, and still nervously dropped a some ash on my Bible.

Eventually people came. I handed them a carefully crafted card (download the PDF below). One side held a prayer of confession from the hymnal with some scripture, andvthe other side had bullet points as reminders of why we wear ashes. As each person came, I asked them to take a moment to reflect and read the card. When they had, they each stood before me.

Heads bowed, I imparted this blessing as I imparted the ashes.

“Let these ashes on your head remind you that you are broken, but Christ will make you whole. That the cross on your head isn't nearly as important as the one in your heart, the one by which Christ names you and claims you. Let these ashes remind you that, one day we will all be ashes, but we love a God who has overcome even ashes. Now, repent, and believe the Gospel"

Starbucks customers watched us repent of our sins and admit to our brokenness. They listened to us quietly speak the truths of our faiths. I watched people cross themselves as they passed. I watched people stop while I was praying. I spoke with people who were reminded to go to their own churches or places of worship. I gave some people ashes. And I had many, many conversations.

“Why are you doing that?” they would ask pointedly.

“It’s a sign of our brokenness and sin. Today’s Ash Wednesday, and we are remembering our humanity, our mortality. Here, I have a card if you’re interested.”

They would take the card, and walk away. I don’t know what seeds were planted in them, but I know God was at work in us. We were tangible, living examples of humble, penitent, loving Christians. Christians more willing to accept our own sin than to point out the sins of others.

By the end of the morning I had given ashes to more than 75 people. That means 75 people went into the world as a witness. Throughout the day, Facebook reflected our ashes. Teenagers posted pictures of their ashes. Mothers, fathers, and business folk all changed their statuses to talk about getting to share the Gospel through the ashes on their heads. Just think of how many conversations these people had, imagine the witness they wore. Imagine the people they touched. Together, we were able to make a difference. I was covered in ashes, yet my heart was full of the working of Christ.

So, I challenge you to step out on faith and do an early public Ash Wednesday remembrance. Find a place. A Starbucks. A country diner. The local breakfast place. A local coffee shop. A place where people gather and pass by—lots of different people, not just people from your church. Ask your congregation to meet you there, and celebrate the beginning of Lent. Be a public witness in a way you never imagined.

I’ll be sitting at my Starbucks again this year, sipping my tea and waiting. I’ll remember to bring wet wipes this time, and hopefully to wear a black dress. I will be there, your community will be there, and so will Christ. The question is, will you? 

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