Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ashes to Go on the Upper West Side

For two hours, we stood outside the church on the corner of 93rd Street and Broadway, offering "Ashes to Go."  We wore clerical collars, and purple stoles over our black coats. Whenever someone came to us, we traced an ashen cross on their forehead, and gave them a card with these words:
Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence. Since the Middle Ages, Christians have observed the beginning of Lent by being marked in ash with the sign of the cross. The ashes remind us of our mortality: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). The cross reminds us of God’s love, made known in Jesus Christ, which overcomes even the power of death. We offer ashes on the street corner because we believe that God cannot be confined to a church building! May these ashes and this Lenten season help you draw closer to God, and may you see God’s grace and love wherever you go. 
It was very cold, and sometimes very holy. We imposed ashes on over a hundred people. Here are five moments that have stayed with me:

  1. A college-age girl approaches. She looks interested, but maybe not completely clear about what to expect. I ask her name. “Julia, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I say. “Okay,” she responds, “but that’s kind of morbid.” Then she thinks a minute more. “I guess we should make the most of it while we’re here.” 
  2. “You’re KIDDING,” says a middle-aged woman, a note of incredulity in her voice. “No,” I say, “We’re completely serious.” She pulls off her hat and lifts up her bangs. “Hit me,” she says. 
  3. A little boy with red hair in a school uniform and his nanny are passing by. She gestures towards us and says something to him. I can’t hear their brief exchange. She steps back, but he takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders and approaches. I crouch down and ask his name. “Remember that you are dust, Patrick, and to dust you shall return.” 
  4. A car pulls up behind us, and the passenger window rolls down. Two young men are listening to loud music inside. “Can I have ashes?” the driver asks. He takes off his hat. My colleague goes around to give him ashes through the car window. “Me too?” asks the passenger. I lean toward the car to mark an ashen cross on his forehead. The thick marijuana smoke gives me a contact high. 
  5. “How long will you be here?” a woman asks after receiving her ashes. “Until four o’clock,” I respond. At 4:02 we are bringing the sign inside when I hear a shout. The woman is jogging toward me. A boy and a girl, still wearing their school backpacks, run with her toward us, two children in light-up sneakers hastening to receive reminders of human frailty. 
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. -from
Psalm 51

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