Ash Wednesday

A white van pulls to a stop on the curb of the busy downtown street in front of the big gothic church, where a minister stands wearing a winter coat and a handmade stole behind a sidewalk sign that reads, “Ashes on The Way. Imposition of Ashes Available To All Throughout The Day.”

The driver of the van springs from the driver side door, rounds the front bumper in a few urgent steps and makes straight for the minister with the pewter dish of ashes in his ski-gloved hand.

The minister is ready. “You want your ashes?”

“Yes, Father.” Though he is a minister, and though this church is Presbyterian, “Father” is still the most common address he receives on Ash Wednesday, doling out dust and the promise of inevitable death on a cold afternoon in a city with a large Catholic population. The female ministers also offering ashes are, of course, never addressed this way. Still, he doesn’t correct them.

“Remember that you are dust [press the ash into the forehead just below the hairline and pull down about two inches], and to dust you shall return [drag the crossbar left to right, always left to right].”

The driver smiles and says thank you. Then he stands there for a moment, deciding about something. He asks, “Can I have some ashes to take with me, for my wife and our baby? The baby is sick and can’t go outside.” Immediately, a napkin appears from the driver’s pocket. He holds it open in two cupped hands, head bowed.

“Of course.” The minister tips a small pile of the black sooty dust into the napkin, shielding it from the wind. He straightens up and smiles at the man with his ash-dotted napkin.

“Can I have a little more? My wife needs some too.”

“Of course,” the minister answers, fighting the impulse to explain that it doesn’t take much and that the amount he’s already got is more than he needs. It’s a symbol. Sometimes you need a lot of symbol.

Satisfied now, the driver thanks the minister again and sprints back to the waiting van. It glides back into traffic smoothly and is off down the street, leaving the minister to imagine the scene later, when the driver imposes ashes on his wife and baby, or maybe his wife will impose them on the baby. How lovely that will be.

Moments later the minister receives a text from his wife, asking him to bring home some ashes for her and their daughter.

“Of course.”

6 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday

  1. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see the use of this custom at a Presbyterian church, except maybe being welcoming to those who’ve left the Roman church. (Granted, it was good to have some street outreach, but we do that in other ways.) I grew up Presbyterian and seeing only the Roman Catholic church using ashes. Where’s the scriptural basis, please?

    1. Margaret, I think there is a lot of Scriptural basis for reminding ourselves of our mortality in this way. There is a convention in Hebrew narrative and poetry, too, of “sackloth and ashes” as expressions of both lament and penitence. I didn’t grow up with this at all, but I have come to embrace it as a valuable, physical, expression of faith.

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