Hamburgers, coffee and now ... ashes?
Taking a page from fast-food chains and doughnut shops, a handful of area clergy are offering “Ashes to Go” to mark the start of the Lenten holy season on Ash Wednesday next week.
Seven area Episcopal priests will distribute ashes outside their churches or in other public spaces, including a couple of Metro Rail stations and the campus of Fredonia State College.
Commuters can even have the sign of the cross traced on their foreheads without leaving their bucket seats.
“Being there when people are looking for God is what’s important,” said the Rev. Vicki Zust, who will meet drivers in the parking lot of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Clarence from 5 to 6:30 p.m. “We’re here for whoever will find this meaningful.”
During the morning commute, the Rev. Sean Leonard will distribute ashes from the parking lot of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Orchard Park.
“The intention is for people to have that connection with God at least for a few minutes,” said Leonard.
The Rev. Cathy Dempesy and Bishop R. William Franklin of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York will be at the Allen Street Metro Rail station from 7 to 8 a.m., available to subway riders and passers-by.
The clergy will pray while distributing ashes, in the sign of the cross, on the recipient’s forehead – a Christian mark of repentance that dates back centuries.
“Through this simple act, we hope to create a moment of grace amidst the busy-ness of people’s daily lives,” said Franklin.
Anyone is welcome to receive the ashes, said Dempesy, who is rector of the Episcocal Church of the Ascension, a few blocks from the station.
Ash Wednesday begins the 40-day season of penance leading up to Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar.
“Ashes to Go” began in St. Louis in 2007 and spread to 80 churches in 21 states last year.
Episcopal clergy in Kenmore, Dunkirk, Lockport and Westfield in Chautauqua County will be participating this year.
Some fellow clergy and parishioners have bristled at the unusual outreach, saying it trivializes a beautiful church tradition that belongs inside a sanctuary.
Zust said she was aware that some people might scoff at the effort, especially in Western New York, where traditions run deep.
“To some extent, you always worry about that. But then I remember Jesus got scoffed at all the time for taking God into the streets,” she said.
Churches are still offering regular Ash Wednesday services, as well, said Leonard. “Ideally, we’d love for people to step inside for an hour and be part of a service,” he said.
But practically, many people won’t or can’t do that, he said.
Some people are intimidated by churches; others have work and family commitments and can’t spare even an hour on a Wednesday.
Besides, added Leonard, “Jesus never did his ministry inside a church.”
Although informal, ashes will be distributed only by clergy, per the norms of the Episcopal Church.
“It isn’t like we’re just going to be slapping ashes on people’s foreheads. We’re going to pray with them,” said Dempesy. “It’s not like the ashes are some sort of ecclesiastical giveaway. There’s going to be some decorum to it.”
Zust and other clergy said there’s a spiritual craving for the ashes, even among people who don’t regularly go the church.
Last year on Ash Wednesday, about a dozen people that Zust “had never seen before” walked into St. Paul’s Church at different times during the late afternoon seeking ashes.
Zust obliged, even though the church had morning and evening services that included ash distributions.
The experience convinced her that the church should try “Ashes to Go” this year.
The ashes, along with a prayer that reminds recipients that they are dust and will return to dust, “seems to strike a chord with people,” said Zust.
“Something about just taking a moment to reflect on mortality was speaking to them,” she said.