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Engaging the world with ashes

Bishop Mark Beckwith giving Ashes to Go at Newark Penn Station

I have been receiving or imposing ashes on Ash Wednesday for nearly every one of my sixty years. Always in church, and always in the context of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. This past Wednesday – for the first time in my experience, I joined scores of clergy and lay people from across the diocese and brought ashes to a public space. Most of us were at train stations. Some set up at bus stations or post offices, or in front of a popular Dunkin’ Donuts or a hardware store.

We set up outside of Penn Station in Newark. It was early. I was ready with my ashes; Paul Shackford, our CFO, held the sign -- “Ashes for Ash Wednesday;” and Nina Nicholson, our communications officer, had the camera. At first nothing happened. My hands were cold.

And then people came. A cab driver got out to receive ashes. Then a pair of commuters. Then more commuters. Some were beaming as they came up. Others were more penitential. Some people walked by several times, obviously pondering whether they should – or could, participate. One woman came up and said, “I have been looking for you.” A couple of people came out from their office for the sole purpose of receiving ashes.

I remember one of my earliest mentors, Henri Nouwen, talking about the spiritual discipline of displacement; which, as he described it, involved going to a different place in order to experience God in a new way. That’s what happened to many of us on Wednesday. We didn’t presume to bring God into the marketplace. God was already there. But what we did do was to highlight God’s presence; and – and this was new to me, to offer God’s blessing in a very visible way. I had never experienced giving ashes in church as an offering of God’s blessing. It was simply one part of the overall Ash Wednesday liturgy, which is full of blessings. But outside of Penn Station, in a very public space and in the early morning cold – that was what I felt that we were doing. Offering God’s blessing. Many people seemed transformed by it. I know I was. And so was the public space.

The other gift from this exercise in spiritual displacement is the realization that we Episcopalians tell our story through our liturgy. We have bread, wine, water, ashes, oil, prayers, hymns, sacred texts, the cross – each of which conveys a portion of our story with Christ. We tell the story of our relationship with the living Christ by blending all those elements together in church. And we are transformed by the telling of that story. Something powerful and important happens when we engage the world with one or several of those elements. What would the transformation be like if we were to engage the world by blessing it with our sacred gifts more often?


I am a deacon living in Portland, Oregon, where I started a weekly outdoor worship a year and a half ago as an outreach of St. Stephen's Episcopal Parish downtown. This ministry is affiliated with Ecclesia Ministries in Boston. We offer the sacrament to anyone who wants to join us in the context of a modified BCP service. For the first time last year we took ashes into the street and were gratified by the response. As a part-time chaplain in NYC in the late 90s, I also took ashes into the hospital. On one memorable occasion, as I was imposing ashes in the ICU, a man in the room next to us went into cardiac arrest. Last week in our outdoor service, known as Communion in the Park, a man wandered in an poured some of his wine into the chalice (we use grape juice outdoors). While the prayers of the people were being said, he and I engaged in a conversation about why his pouring wine into the chalice was inappropriate. I invited him to stay and offered him a sandwich. He took the sandwich. Nothing stops our outdoor service, not even the mentally ill on the street who drop in and, on occasion, "concelebrate." Btw, you and I met when you were a new bishop and I was head of Church Publishing. Blessings.

Mark: I am interested in your use of the phrase "imposing ashes." To my knowledge (which may well be faulty), that is not the sense in which ashes are distributed by the Roman Catholic Church. My sense is that ashes are distributed on Ash Wednesday as a simple reminder to the faithful that we are mortal and that to dust we shall return. What is the implication of "imposing" ashes. John

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