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Experiencing Ash Wednesday on two continents

Bishop Mark Beckwith giving Ashes to Go

Ash Wednesday was a long day for many in the church. For me, it began in Liberia, where I had spent a week with leaders of the Episcopal Church in that country; and ended in New Jersey – where I spent a few hours outside, and then inside, the Newark train station administering ashes.

“Remember that you are dust; and to dust you shall return” was the litany of the day; and in a mysterious way, the phrase connected both ends of my trip. Liberians don’t need to be reminded about dust. Between 1980 with the first coup, until 2003 when the leader of the second coup was arrested and sent to the International Court for crimes against humanity, thus ending 23 years of brutal civil war – their country was ground into dust. In the ten years since the end of the war, Liberians have reworked the back end of the Ash Wednesday statement: remember that you are dust, and from the dust you shall return.

The country is emerging from the dust. Roads are being paved; buildings are being restored, the economy is inching forward. The leaders we met – Bishop, priests, deacons, President of Cuttington University (the Episcopal college) and leaders of diocesan ministries, are drawing on resurrection hope as they continue to rebuild. The dust is deep; as is the residual trauma – but time and again I met with people whose faith in God’s mercy, blessing and abundance both inspired and humbled me. By the world’s calculus, they have an unfounded hope in turning things around. But Gospel hope has never been held back by the world’s metrics.

At Penn Station in Newark, the dust was symbolic; it came in the form of ashes. The train station hummed with activity, as people were rushing to catch a bus or board a train. When people saw the sign – “Ashes to Go for Ash Wednesday”, so many made a split second decision to halt their commute, have ashes pressed on their foreheads – and be intentionally connected with God. Some were solemn; many were smiling – all were grateful. Some may have felt that by receiving ashes on the go they avoided some dreaded spiritual punishment; but most seemed to be grateful that they could connect with God – and receive God’s blessing in a place, well, that otherwise is not a space for God.

We were created out of dust. We will all return to dust. And there is a lot of dust that can cover us – and sometimes smother us, between birth and death. The dust in Newark is different from the dust in Monrovia, and it is different from Chatham or Ramsey or Newton or Jersey City. In the midst of the dust, there is God’s blessing. I felt that on both continents. I have heard similar experiences from people across the diocese who encountered God by offering God’s blessing in a public space.

What an enormous gift.


We were travelling all day on Ash Wednesday - from NJ to Florida. Was thinking of stopping at Penn Station on the way to the airport for Ashes to Go, when I read you were in Liberia. We went from the airport to Atlanta and then on to Florida, arriving too late for Ash Wednesday services in Vero Beach. My first Ash Wednesday without ashes since my childhood in Christ Church, Hackensack. My wishes for you for a Penitential Lent and a Blessed Easter. Doris

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