Ashes, Sidewalks, and Mortality - My Experience with Taking Ash Wednesday to the Streets

This year for Ash Wednesday, I participated in taking the ritual of the imposition of ashes to the parking lot and sidewalks of our local community.  Together with a clergy colleague, we set up shop at the corner of our church yard where parents on their way to work were dropping off their children for school (they use our parking lot daily as it is directly next to the elementary school).  With coffee in hand, and a bowl of ashes with anointing oil in another, we set out to offer an opportunity for busy folks to pause and remember their mortality before God.  Mostly we received many waves and smiles back as we smiled and waved at folks driving by, also alerting them to the sign that read "Ashes to Go" and "Receive Ashes Here".  Over the two hour period, we had three people actually stop in to receive ashes.  A man walking by was invited to receive but he declined and offered his greeting for a good day.

Stoles in hand, ashes and oil secured in the back seat of my car, we set off for bustling downtown Manchester (bustling, at least for rural Michigan!)  We set up on the sidewalk on the main street where we were greeted by many smiles and waves from passerby.  Some people, when noticing us asked if we were the people "on the hill" earlier in the morning to which we affirmed.  We were encouraged by some who stopped by and said they had already received ashes at mass earlier that morning, but thought what we were doing was great.  Another man stopped by to inquire of our practices, and although declining to receive ashes proceeded to engage us in a thoughtful conversation about the Church.  We were blessed to talk with this man as he shared difficulties he has had in the past with churches, and yet conversing with us further on the possibility of attending our church sometime.

There were a few folks, however that were not as affirming of our practice.  One passerby recognized our stoles and the ashes, proceeding then to tell us that she had never received ashes from a stainless steel bowl and that she never will.  She seemed to have been suggesting that using a stainless steel bowl rather than a wooden pyxis was not faithful to the ritual.  As well, a man walked by and gave some fairly concerning glances of disdain, no conversation, just glances.  I am not sure if he is one who has been burned by religion in the past, thought that we were religious nuts who couldn't mind our own business, or thought that what we were doing was sacrilege.  Either way, a bit of introspection began to take place in my heart - am I being faithful to the sacramental nature of this ritual?  Am I somehow diluting the meaning of the ashes?  Is the message being proclaimed appropriately?  Am I engaging in supporting "cheap" grace?

These questions are what has prompted me to write this post... Originally I was going to simply report on the experience in general, but thought it would be good to seek out thoughts from you as well.  I have had a few trusted clergy colleagues bring to mind the possibility that this may not be an appropriate practice for it may not incorporate the community aspect of confession, repentance, and realization of our mortality in the sense that it was originally intended.  I agree with this statement, to the degree that our culture is so focused on quick and easy solutions that do not interfere with our plans.  However, I do believe that we are called to be ambassadors of God's grace outside the walls of the church.  Of course, there are ways other than Ash Wednesday to do this, but what better way to remind people of God's grace than to remind them of their mortality?  My thinking is that they may miss out on Ash Wednesday services due to their job or other obligations.  Sure, they could "make time" to reflect, I get that and strongly proclaim that.  However, maybe they don't get it and someone needs to come beside them to walk beside them to aid in their understanding.  Let me say right here that I do not believe the "drive thru" ashes concept allows for the exchange that needs to happen between people and God, BUT receiving ashes, even in this manner may prompt them to think about it more than if they had not received ashes.  I just don't know.  Before I get to rambling on and on, let me hear from you.  What do you think about the Ashes to Go concept?  How about Drive-Thru ashes?  Should this ritual be reserved for a service inside the walls of the church, or should it be taken to the streets? Is there any loss in meaning or cheapening of grace?

I look forward to your thoughts!



  1. I know this saying is used over and over, but "What would Jesus do?" I am pretty sure Jesus would be standing right next you! He wouldn't care what kind of bowl you had or where you were at. You don't often hear stories about Jesus just hanging out in the church doing his thing. He was out on the town! He was reaching all of the people. If he could spread his word he would do it anywhere, anytime, any place (drive thru, parking lot, sidewalk, on top of a mountain, in a boat, etc.)! I think what you did was aweosme! Good work!! :-)

  2. Aaron, you say, "I have had a few trusted clergy colleagues bring to mind the possibility that this may not be an appropriate practice for it may not incorporate the community aspect of confession, repentance, and realization of our mortality in the sense that it was originally intended." and admittedly I thought that as well. It does miss out on the community aspect and lessens the intentions of Ash Wednesday worship. HOWEVER, you are correct in that we must take our faith outside the walls of the church. We need to be intentional in this area and seize every opportunity that comes along. It can also be a powerful tool of evangelism to people who would not come through the doors of a church. You engaged in conversation. That is what we are called to do in evangelism, so I says KUDOS to you and keep up the good work.

    Now I'm wondering how I can do this at the courthouse parking lot in a community that has no knowledge of Ash Wednesday. hmmm.


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