By Rev. Rachel
This year we decided to invite people into the season of Lent and offer an opportunity to receive God’s grace and mercy not only in church, but right in the midst of wherever they found themselves—on their way to work, to school, or home. Early on the morning of Ash Wednesday, Rev. Kirkland Reynolds, Rev. Ken Hawes (from Hughes UMC) and I met at the Starbucks Coffee next to the Silver Spring Metro Station. I got a cup of coffee and we prayed together, and spread palm ashes in the shape of a cross on one another’s foreheads. Then we went out to the corners of East-West Highway and Colesville Road and offered those same ashes to the morning commuters on the Metro.
At first, I wasn’t sure how to identify myself or let people know why I was there. I intentionally didn’t wear any of my “clergy uniform,” and it was too cold for me to take off my jacket so people could see my SSUMCP t-shirt. So I just started smiling at people as they approached the entrance to the Metro, and said, “Good morning! Today is Ash Wednesday. Would you like some ashes?” Most people walked right by me, clearly trying to avoid making eye contact. Whatever it was that I was selling, they did not want any of it. It made me wonder if this is what it might feel like to be a poor or homeless person asking for money to get something to eat. Except that I wasn’t asking them for anything—in fact I had something I wanted to give to them!
There were a couple of more awkward moments, like the one woman who walked by and said “No thanks, I’m Jewish,” but there was only one person who was openly hostile toward me. When I offered him some ashes, he indignantly told me, “No. Those are supposed to be picked up in church. And they’re supposed to be washed off, too, if you read Matthew.” This same gentleman then walked past me and went right up to Rev. Ken Hawes and said “You are the second person to accost me with ashes! Doesn’t it say in Matthew that you aren’t supposed to parade your faith on the street corners? What do you say about that?” I have to hand it to him–the man knew his Bible! He was referring to Matthew 6:17 and 6:5, two of the verses of scripture that we read on Ash Wednesday. But I understand this passage differently—it’s not that we shouldn’t be humble, but on Ash Wednesday it is one of the few times that we are invited to be really public about our faith and about our need for repentance and forgiveness. Rev. Ken responded to this gentleman that the cross was a sign of his faith and that the man didn’t have to share his faith, but that the ashes were simply an invitation to God’s grace. That seemed to disarm our friend a bit and he left, hopefully to worship God in his own way.
Yet, there were also some really holy moments in this experience, too. There were a couple of people who stopped and said, “I completely forgot that today was Ash Wednesday. Yes, I really would like some ashes.” And there were some of our church members who came by, including one who said, “Wow! This is an awesome way to start the day!” and another who sent a Tweet on his way to work: Many thanks to Rev @rachcornwell for bringing #Ash Wednesday to Metro commuters…an unexpected blessing silverspringumcp.org
Rev. Kirkland was giving out ashes at the Metro entrance nearest to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and he got a few suspicious looks from the security guards and from the woman handing out the Washington Post “Express” newspaper. Rev. Kirkland offered her some ashes, which at first she declined, but after a while, standing and watching him offer ashes to passers-by, she asked him what the meaning of receiving the ashes was. He explained that the imposition of ashes was a way of turning back toward God, being forgiven and made whole. And she said, “I need that every day.”
After about an hour standing at the Metro, I began to feel cold and ready to head to the church to prepare for our mid-day service. But there were two women whom I had noticed, standing near the steps, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, and complaining loudly about some troubles with a mutual friend, so I decided to approach them. First, I apologized for interrupting their conversation and said, “Today is Ash Wednesday. Could I offer you some ashes?” They both looked at me for a moment, and then one of them said, “Sure. I’d like some.” I placed the ashes in the form of a cross, saying, “This is an invitation to turn away from your sin, and turn toward the God who loves you.” Her eyes brimmed with tears and she said, “My mom always used to go to church and get ashes on Ash Wednesday. This reminds me of her. Thank you.” Then her friend said, “OK, I’ll take some, too.” Then they picked up their coffee cups and left, smiling.
Later in the day, the three of us met up again at the Wheaton Metro Station, to offer ashes to the evening commuters arriving home. Wheaton during the afternoon rush hour is much different from Silver Spring in the morning. The people come off the trains in groups every 12 minutes, and in between there are a lot of people getting on and off buses. The people coming home look tired, exhausted from the day. And there are a lot of young people, mostly black and Hispanic. (It would have helped me a lot to be able to speak Spanish that day!) Rev. Ken was able to offer a few people ashes, but most people turned me and Rev. Kirkland down. There was one group of three young African-American men who walked by Rev. Kirkland and when he offered him ashes, they said “No thanks,” and kept walking. But a few minutes later, one of the young men returned and came up to me and Rev. Kirkland. “Break this down for me,” he said. “What’s this all about?” We explained that today was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, which is a time to prepare our hearts for Easter and the death and resurrection of Jesus. “It’s an invitation to turn toward God,” we said. “OK,” he said. “I want that.” Rev. Kirkland asked him to lift his hat and he put a cross on the young man’s head, a sign of God’s love and forgiveness.
There’s a reason why this practice is called the “imposition” of ashes. When you offer ashes at the Metro, you do get the feeling that you might be imposing yourself, your faith, your views on some people. But for those for whom this invitation to turn toward God, met them right where they were, right where they needed God to be at the busy crossroads of their life, it was a moment of grace. And it was for me, too.
Everlasting God, because of your tender mercy toward all people, you sent your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, to take upon himself our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross, that all should follow the example of his great humility. Mercifully grant that we may follow the example of his patience and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Book of Common Prayer)