Lent commenced this week with Ash Wednesday and ends with Holy Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday, which marks the start of Holy Week. An early church tradition, Lent is credibly traceable back to the Apostle John through early church fathers Polycarp and Irenaeus, and recorded by early church historian Eusebius.
Originally celebrated as a severe fast leading up to Easter, Lent’s purpose was to prepare the mind and body for symbolically experiencing the last days of the life of Christ. Over time, Lent has become less sacrificial and more connected with what Christians give up. Lent can be powerful, reminding adherents of the power of sacrifice and their own mortality.
Today Lent is observed by most liturgical churches, including Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and Congregationalists. Recently a groundswell of support for observing Lent has developed among a growing number of evangelicals. Many evangelicals previously avoided observing Lent because of its origin in the early church and ties to the papacy. They counter that the ideals of Lent are held high throughout the church year, yet Lent observance is growing year by year because of its hold on the imagination.
Ash Wednesday, an ancient church practice of placing ashes on the forehead in the sign of the cross, requires people to seek out a church and clergy who perform this rite. Lately, perceptive churchmen are starting to take ashes to the people. In San Francisco, Sara Miles, director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, has been doing this for three years in the Mission District. A recent Christian Century article by Miles, “Witness to the Dark: Ashes in the Streets,” was an excerpt from her latest book, “City of God: Faith in the Streets,” which describes how this practice of taking ashes to the streets began.
This effort symbolizes taking the gospel to the people, as opposed to expecting people to come to church to receive the gospel. The hallmarks of the gospel, visiting the sick and those in prison, caring for widows, and taking the “Good News” to the world, as commanded by Jesus, were never intended to be a church-bound imperative.
Local Lutheran pastors Martin Eldred (Joy Lutheran), Dan Bollerud (Christ Our Savior Lutheran) and Julia Seymour (Lutheran Church of Hope) followed Sara Miles’ example on Ash Wednesday by distributing ashes at Town Square and the Downtown Transit Center. Although takers were few, it clearly caught the public’s attention. Those accepting ashes were exceeding grateful. Interestingly, the pastors saw no people with ash on their foreheads during their visit.
Pastor Julia, who first suggested their outing, offered several observations.
“Ash Wednesday is a church institution, not something instructed by God or done by Jesus. It is a day the Church decided that people should reflect on their mortality and humanity before entering a season of fasting and penitence. When I think about those three things, I think:
“1. Church isn’t limited to a building or to the people who show up in a building.
“2. Plenty of people are very aware of their mortality.
“3. Fasting and feasting are not always things we choose. Sometimes they are put upon us by the choices of others.
“We came as people from on high with answers. We also came as fellow human beings, seeking life and fearing death. We brought ashes as a reminder of our connection to one another, our connection to dust, and our connection (acknowledged or unacknowledged) with God. The ashes remind us of the brokenness in those relationships — with each other, creation and God. Only God knows what will result from our presence. We trust the Holy Spirit to make and keep us ready for it.”
Pastor Dan added: “Ashes distribution in public is a way to take the gospel to the world and remind people they are loved where they are at, not for any great spiritual accomplishment on their own. The 40 days of Lent should be used as an opportunity to give up ingratitude, replacing it with gratitude. It takes 40 days to establish a new habit. Aim to recognize one thing you’re grateful for each day. Lent speaks to God’s presence in the dark times of life. Christianity is getting more real.”
I believe Anchorage is better for this selfless outreach. These three have started a new Lenten tradition here. Thank you, pastors, for leading the way.