Tag Archives: Ashes to the Street

If you don’t already observe Lent, consider giving traditions a try

Two and a half weeks ago, Lent began for a large portion of Christianity with Ash Wednesday (Orthodox churches begin observing Lent on March 13). Some local Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopal clergy brought “ashes to the people” in downtown Anchorage that day. I applaud this approach because it brings clergy to the people, instead of people expecting to have to go to clergy. This may be Christianity at its best.

“Sharing ashes on the street is an opportunity for Christians to practice very public theology, said participant Nico Romeijn-Stout, pastor of discipleship and social justice at St. John United Methodist Church and one of those clergy. “Our practice was to take a moment with each person asking their name and how we can be in prayer with and for them. Even in a short moment a relationship was formed. What was striking for me was that the only people who received ashes from me were a couple of homeless men. One said that he hadn’t been ‘blessed’ in years. When we take the risk to do ministry with people where they are, we meet Christ in profound ways.”

Taking “ashes to the street” did not substitute for the Ash Wednesday services those clergy later held in their own churches.

Many Catholic clergy feel ashes should be applied in the church as a rite.

“We take ashes to the homebound, but the distribution of ashes is best done in the sacred assembly at Mass,” said St. Benedict’s Rev. Leo Walsh. “Catholics understand Lent, and all the associated rites, as a communal act of penance by the whole believing community. “It’s possible those attitudes may change over time, as I’m noticing an increasing numbers of news stories of Catholic and Episcopal clergy taking ashes to the street.

Regardless of how one receives their ashes, on the street, in bed, or at church, this rite is an awe-inspiring moment in which one can take stock and recognize we’re mortal and will return to dust.

During my personal preparation for Lent I came across an excellent guide prepared by the Society of St. Andrew, which sponsors a gleaning ministry for food rescue and feeding the hungry. The society’s 44-page downloadable PDF guide offers a wealth of Scripture, reflections, and prayers for Lent.

During Lent many churches host extra evening services or other activities.

First Congregational Church is conducting Tuesday evening Taizé-style services at 5:30 p.m. through March 22. The services will include music, chants, times of silence and readings from the Bible and other sources, but no sermons or discussion.

Many more churches’ Lent activities are offered on Wednesday evenings. Central Lutheran Church has soup suppers, study, and a service through March 16. All Saints Episcopal Church offers a soup supper at 6 p.m. followed by a lesson on spiritual gifts. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is having Lenten soup suppers at 6 p.m. followed by a discussion on the intersection of Lenten themes and immigration. First United Methodist Church is serving Lenten suppers through March 30 at 6 p.m. with a Lenten study following. Anchorage Lutheran Church offers Lenten worship at 7 p.m. with supper at 6 p.m. Gloria Dei Lutheran Church provides a soup supper and fellowship at 5:45 p.m. followed by Holden Evening Prayer worship at 6:30 p.m. Joy Lutheran in Eagle River serves a soup supper at 6:15 p.m. followed by Lenten worship at 7 p.m. Much can be learned from partaking of these simple suppers, and the brief services connected with them. It’s a time for personal growth.

Instead of Lenten suppers and services, local Catholics, focus on the exercising what the Rev. Tom Lily calls the three Ts: “Time, talent, and treasure are common terms we use when talking about being good stewards of all God has entrusted to us. How do we generously give a proportionate amount of our time, talent and material resources back to glorify God through serving our neighbor?”

For example, Lent projects in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, where Lily is the pastor, address all three T’s by supporting Catholic Social Services’ St. Francis Food Pantry. Each member is encouraged to participate in the Knights of Columbus’ “40 Cans 4 Lent” campaign, where 40 cans of food, one for each day of Lent, are donated. Members also donate funds for perishable dairy, fruits and vegetables. parish members also provide hands-on assistance at St. Francis house, as well as actively advocate support for the federal SNAP program through after-church letter-writing efforts.

Local pastor, the Rev. Rick Benjamin, raised in a Protestant/Evangelical/Pentecostal tradition that didn’t observe Lent calls himself a non-Lenter but connects with the custom of fasting and prayer as performed as Lenten tradition.

“Many important decisions in our church’s history, and in my own life, came out of times of dedicated prayer and fasting,” he said. Rick’s local relationships made him aware of the liturgical calendar and Lent. He became intrigued, saying, “Lent was similar to fasting, sort of an extended semifast, and a time of self-denial and preparation for Resurrection Sunday.” His experience with Lent has been positive. He points out, “I have benefited from Lent, even though my understanding and observance are admittedly incomplete. And to all the other ‘non-Lenters’ like me out there, I suggest you give Lent a try.”

My tradition was also a non-Lent observing one. Over the years, as I’ve matured in my faith, I’ve been exposed to this meaningful time of the church year dedicated to self-examination and rethinking one’s relationship with God. The music I hear in Lent-observing churches during this time becomes more thoughtful and intense. Like Benjamin, I encourage you to explore Lent, by attending any of the church activities I’ve noted above. I think you’ll be glad you went.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Pastors mark start of Lent by taking ashes to the people – 3/8/14

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.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits. Emailchurchvisits@gmail.com.

Original ADN Article