Ashes and Public Discipleship

This past Ash Wednesday, a group from our church offered ashes and blessings to morning commuters outside of the U District Light Rail Station. Holding a sign that proclaimed, “Ashes for All,” we waved and wished folks passing by “good morning” and asked, “Would you like to receive a blessing and ashes for Ash Wednesday?” Some people ignored us, some told us they were not Catholic, and some stopped to receive.

One by one, we placed ashes on their foreheads and blessed them saying, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return—in the frailty of life, God loves you!” The first person to receive was so moved that she offered to give a hug and thanked us. And while we assumed that most people that stopped by had some former involvement with or knowledge of Christianity and Lent, there was one person that did not. He asked us many questions, and in the end decided to receive the imposition of ashes for the first time. We handed each person a flyer, inviting them to stay connected to our church.

Offering ashes on the street with teams of lay people is one of my all-time favorite pastoral “tasks” I get to share in each year. I know that there are some fellow clergy – good, super-smart, faithful people, including my former United Methodist Worship professor – who feel that practicing Ash Wednesday in such a fashion is liturgically and/or theologically incomplete, and that’s a fair critique. But in an age when many churches (and, perhaps, particularly “progressive” churches) suffer from an epidemic reluctance to public/verbal discipleship and evangelism, I think it’s worth risking “liturgical incorrectness” for the chance to meet people right where they are to remind them/us that we are all at once bearers of the image of God and frail humans in need of grace. At the U District Light Rail Station, on the sidewalk, across from the Ugly Mug café: that hopeful truth is no less true in that space than it is in a sanctuary. Perhaps it is even more true amid public invitation and bold communal witness.

Alongside you,

Rev. Paul Ortiz