I loved Ashes to Go; like handing out water at Pride, it is way outside my normal comfort zone but I feel like an agent of the Holy Spirit – it is my amazing privilege to help some little space open up where it is possible for another person to see a small ray of God’s abundant love. I feel completely free about that – I have no specific task except to be fully present in a brief moment of someone’s life and, perhaps, even much later, the seed of that moment will bear fruit. What an awesome idea that something I did might help fulfill God’s purposes. The “wow” of that never ceases to amaze me.
Ashes to Go was a way to publicly witness to my faith by abandoning my usual self-consciousness and being vulnerable to others in the service of letting God loose to work in someone else’s life. We had 58 people who wanted to receive ashes – from office workers, homeless folks, retirees and bakery workers who received ashes and then went back to share the opportunity with colleagues. Most people were familiar with Ash Wednesday and very grateful to not have to work out how to get to church. I especially enjoyed the people who were not attuned to the tradition but who asked about it and then participated. I had a very interesting discussion with a man who was interested in desert experiences of fasting! It was a good exercise for me to distill something important to me into something I could say in a couple of lines (“ashes remind us that this life is fleeting, that we are called to be grateful for God’s many blessings and to refrain from unkindnesses and destructive behaviors so that we can help heal the creation” Sort of Ash Wednesday lite). And, in imitation of the first Christians, we shared something of the faith with people who agreed to be marked with ashes and go out into the world, silently evangelizing all who saw them.
After Ashes to Go, I kept thinking about people we met and what an amazing experience it was for me. And, of course, we always get more than we give in these kinds of activities. As I have reflected since, here’s what stands out: in our culture, we do not really acknowledge strangers. We generally don’t make eye contact with them and we certainly do not get into other people’s space, much less touch people we do not know. And we never say “God Bless You” unless someone sneezes. This was an intensely personal encounter with a stranger. The person who responded to our invitation by approaching us and that was courageous, for sure. They couldn’t really know what to expect when they stepped forward. Yet their yearning for an encounter with the holy overcame and reluctance they might have felt (and some watched from the safety of the coffee shop for a while before they stepped up). The moment of looking into each other’s eyes and touching their foreheads in God’s most holy name was so powerful to me that I still feel the emotion of it. To look deeply into a stranger’s eyes and say “God bless you” was very powerful. What I saw in those faces was, instead, deep gratitude and a little relief; I believe people felt assured that, because a person of faith said so, that indeed God might just love them! Whew! This experience has become my own Lenten discipline – telling people that I love them or saying “God bless you” with intentionality. Not just an offhand, “God bless” that lets me off the hook of being thought a total religious nut, but the real, vulnerable disclosure of my own affection for the person and sincere prayer for God’s blessing on them.
~Christine H. Spalding