I had just finished saying “You are dust. And to dust you shall return… in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” as I traced the sign of the cross in ash on her forehead three times. She smiled and responded, “Amen, of course… but we don’t have to rush that last part, do we?”
This was just one of the many incredible interactions of Ash Wednesday I want to share with you.
I arrived at 5th and Market before eight, and stayed for the next two hours. With Independence Hall and Dow Chemical and the the Jewish Museum before me, and Wells Fargo and the subway stairs behind me, there I was where the country and commerce and culture converge on regular Philadelphians’ daily lives. I was back out there again from 4 to 6 p.m. An eagle or a hawk circled overhead, barely flapping his wings as he road the updrafts, the whole time.
I’d gotten nervous about “Ashes to Go,” …was almost dreading it. Was I uncomfortable being so out — in public — as a minister, as a believer? …or maybe because I was to do something sacred in such a secular space?
Sometimes I feel anxious or foreboding about our bigger church days. “What if no one shows up for Christmas Eve or Easter?” But this was different. Sure, I wondered how would people react? But I didn’t have any responsibility for assembling a crowd.
Even if I just stood there the whole time by my sign, in the robe, with the jar of ashes in my hand — not talking to or giving ashes to anyone — I’d have been a reminder that it was Ash Wednesday. (I was surprised by how many said they’d completely forgotten). Or, at the least, I’d be a quiet suggestion that the church cares enough to send some guy to freeze on the corner to get closer to where people live their daily lives. And I’d be gracious if people weren’t interested in what I had to offer.
I stood there somewhat tentatively, offering quietly, “Ashes for Ash Wednesday,” unless a man in a yarmulke or a woman in Muslim dress passed by. Perhaps not the cleverest line, but direct and to the point.
Most people walked on by. Either saying “No thank you,” or “God bless you.” Or more often looking slightly uncomfortable or even turning away. I enjoyed watching the folks who wanted to read every word of the sign, but didn’t want me to see them do so.
But my concerns evaporated with the first person who walked right up to me with a smile on her face, like she knew me. “Thank God, you’re here. I have two jobs. And no time. But I need ashes.”
She put her hands into mine for the prayer:
“Almighty and merciful God, you do not hate anything or anyone you have made. Instead, you offer forgiveness to those who ask. We ask now for new and contrite hearts, that we might acknowledge our need and receive your full forgiveness in Christ Jesus, our Redeemer. Amen.”
I marked her forehead, as I said the blessing from Genesis and the Trinitarian formula, and then she kissed me on the cheek! A total stranger, bent forward and kissed me. Apparently, I had entertained an angel unaware!
With some people there were hardly any extra words. One women just began to cry. But others lingered to tell me of their families. Or their faith journeys. Or what they were struggling with.
“Sorry about the cigarette,” one man said. “You’re making your own ashes,” I responded. “Or just turning myself into ashes.” “May God help you stop smoking.” “Amen.”
“I haven’t been to church for years.” “Doesn’t matter.” “I can still get ashes?” “Better yet, God still loves you, so you can ask for whatever help you need.” “Cool.” “In church, for cool, we say, ‘Amen.'” “Oh, sorry, Father.” “No reason to be sorry about that.” Then I asked, “Will you pray with me?” “Sure, but I don’t know the words.” “I’ll speak; just let your heart follow.” “Ok…” (kind of tentatively). At the end of the prayer, where I usually say, “Amen,” I substituted “Cool.”
“My son, his name is Peter, has OCD really bad,” another man shared. “And it’s driving my wife crazy. Will you pray for us?”
A woman about my age offered: “I’m Methodist. If you are ever up near West Oak Lane, maybe you will visit our church.” Me: “I’d like that.” She: “Can I tell you something?” “Sure?” “I’m thinking about going to Lutheran Seminary?” “That’s great. Have you told anyone else?” “I told my husband that I’m going back to school for a Master’s, but not in what.” “I will keep your plan and your hope in my heart and in my prayers.” “Thank you.”
A man with his smudge on his forehead called out, “I waited for forty-five minutes for mine, but I could have gotten it from you on the fly.” A bicyclist asked, “can I get a ‘ride-by?’” — I walked over to the curb. Later in the day, I imposed ashes on Sarah S. in the front seat of her car.
I met another woman, an older laywoman, who’d tried to offer ashes to everyone she met taking the train from Newark to Philadelphia. She hadn’t been very successful. So she helped me for some time, missing her bus 4 times. She has a 70 year old cousin recently ordained a UCC minister and serving in Bangor, Maine.
I met a man who’s hasn’t missed mass even one day for over twenty years, since his aunt, a Roman Catholic woman religious, passed away.
And I had a disputation with an Austrian tourist who believes in a unity of all things wherein we don’t need symbols. And someone gave me a laminated card for my wallet that just says “JESUS” in big red letters.
Some guy figured out which church I was from: “…at 4th and Race with the outdoor manger each Christmas.” Me: “Yep! That outdoor ministry works well for us; so why not ashes out of doors?”
I prayed and offered ashes to 3 Liberian woman, but they didn’t know Teetee or Isaac from our congregation.
I saw one friend from the gym and six Old Firsters: four got ashes; three did not. A church member who was surprised to see me there, hollered down the street, “What are doing out here?” I yelled back: “God sent me here, to find you.” “Why’d God want you to find me?” “Because we don’t see you in church, but now I can still give you ashes.” He acquiesced.
Others didn’t quite know what Old First was or who I was. I got called “Father” at least 30 times. Some people took an Old First flyer.
Word must have spread in the Wells Fargo building behind me. Colleagues started coming out in threes (I assume that number was coincidental). Without coats. We started praying in small groups.
Dave R. called to find out my hours. He has a parishioner from Bridesburg who works nearby. Drew A. asked if I’d be there at lunchtime: his office had some dyed in the wool Catholics willing to take ashes from a Protestant minister. A security guard came rushing over late in the day: “I was going to go to the Basilica, but I heard you were here, so I ran the whole way.” Was I a bigger draw than the Archbishop?
One woman asked, “Are you a priest?” I answered, “No, I’m a Protestant minister.” She responded, “Then, no thank you.” My favorite was the two friends, both Catholic. One figured God is the same, so the ashes must be the same. The other wanted Catholic ashes. They parted in front of me to get different buses. The former waited until her stricter Catholic friend was out of sight, and she came back for Protestant ashes.
I also liked the people who walked on by, hesitated, turned around and came back for ashes.
If there were some rejections… there was also the toddler who walked by holding his mom’s hand. When they got nearby, he pointed right at me and exclaimed, “Look, mommy, God.” I think his mom was as embarrassed as I was.
An armored truck driver making a left turn from Market onto 5th, pulled over to get his ashes. And a construction worker on top of the Dow Chemical building came down: “I couldn’t tell what you were doing at first. But then I said to my boss, ‘I’m taking a break; I’ll be back soon, and holier.’” There was a bus driver who wanted ashes, but not if people on his bus might see, “You know, people talk.”
One of my favorite was a man who came up and said, “I’m Jewish.” I responded, “Then the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob bless you.” He said, “But I’m struggling, in a real battle, and it’s a long way until Yom Kippur.” I replied, “We ‘stole’ ashes as a sign of sorrow for one’s sin from the Hebrew Scriptures.” “But I don’t want a cross on my forehead.” “Touche’. I could trace a Star of David with the ashes on the back of your hand.” “That might help; what would it mean?” “That God knows better than anyone that you are human, and still God’s hesed (steadfast mercy) can forgive and heal you.” “Please do.” (It ended up more of a Rorschach test for a Star of David, but he seemed pleased.)
Another man told me that he’d received ashes every year, but this year, his life was nearing its end, and the words of Genesis felt threatening. I responded, “I can imagine. Maybe you need to remember the words are not a threat, but a promise: by God, our lives continue after our bodies die.” “Please offer me the ashes, and pray for me.”
A woman told me that she’s a Christian, but “I can’t ever do Ash Wednesday: my mom always told me I was dirt. So I’m not going to have God saying pretty much the same thing.” “I hear that,” I responded, “and I’m sorry for your experience with your mom, but maybe the words from Genesis are not a put down, but a promise: God can do amazing things with earth; God means amazing things with and for and through you.”
See you in church (if not on a street corner),