I am tracing the sign of the cross in black ashes on the forehead of a total stranger as I intone the ancient lesson from Genesis 3:19: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I am enacting this ancient rite while standing in the middle of a busy coffeehouse.
It is the 7th annual “Ashes to Go” celebration for Ash Wednesday, organized by St. John’s-Tower Grove. For the past seven years, the clergy of St. John’s, along with fellow clergy from local Presbyterian, Mennonite, and Community churches, have gathered on the corner of Grand and Arsenal to give out ashes and pray Psalm 51 with any and all comers, assisting people in repentance and preparation for Lent.
It may seem odd to see a gaggle of clergy in their liturgical vestments standing in a coffeehouse during the luncheon crowd, repeating the Ash Wednesday rite – to some people it may even be sacrilegious. We disagree. We think it is a powerful statement of evangelism and solidarity to bring the work of the church out to where people live, move, and have their being.
The so-called secular world continues to eat more and more of our lives with its demands for work, work, and more work, until there is little energy left for a person to attend even one, early morning service like an Ash Wednesday rite. To honor those people and their busy lives, we have come here, out of the sanctuary, and brought Christ to them instead of expecting them to come to us. By our presence here, we are saying, “We are with you.”
Today happens to be the coldest Ash Wednesday we can remember – 14°F and 15 mph winds – and one of our biggest supporters, Mo of MoKaBe’s Coffeehouse, has offered us the use of a corner of her establishment to hold our Ashes to Go event instead of standing outside on the street corner like we normally do (and yes, this is the same MoKaBe’s that figured prominently in my posts about the Michael Brown demonstrations). So, here we are, in one of the hippest coffeehouses in the city, standing around in our medieval vestments among the lunch crowd, enacting an abbreviated version of the Ash Wednesday rite, which is some 1400 years old.
I am looking around the room, and we have nearly as many people waiting for ashes as there are people waiting for their double lattés. And not one person waiting for ashes is taking it as a joke.
I am so grateful to be here at this moment, for I understand now that people are far more open to the Body of Christ and our worship of God than the Sunday numbers in the pews would lead me to believe. I see that people long for connection to God, long to consider their lives in light of God’s grace, and are willing to walk out of a coffeehouse with a large black cross smeared on their face, openly defying a world that tells them to shut up and get back to work or you’re fired. A world that cannot abide any other God but itself. I am so grateful to be one small player in their extraordinary statement of faith.