Ashes on the Way

On Ash Wednesday, pastors and lay leaders stood in front of the Michigan Avenue Sanctuary entrance to offer ashes and prayer to those who find the imposition of ashes a meaningful way to observe the Lenten season.

While we again offered our two formal worship services, “Ashes on the Way” is an opportunity for us to bring the church outside of our four walls and into the world. Since the Lenten season calls us to reconciliation with God and God’s people, we began that journey on Ash Wednesday by being open to those who might not otherwise encounter the church. With “Ashes on the Way,” we were in relationship with hundreds of persons throughout the day who sought ashes and prayer.

The following is a reflection by David Handley, a member of the Fourth Church community who imposed ashes as part of this public ministry on Wednesday morning.

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Ashes on the Way on Michigan Avenue: Ash Wednesday at Fourth Presbyterian Church

A workman in a large white van, ladder on top, pulled up on Michigan Avenue, got out, and asked for the ashes. He had tears as I made the sign of the cross on his forehead. He made eye contact, said “Thank you!” and then got back into his van and drove off. Another leader offering ashes told me about a Chicago police officer who pulled up, asked for the ashes, expressed his gratitude, and pulled away to protect the city.

A middle-aged woman came up to me. As I asked her if she would like ashes on her forehead for Ash Wednesday, she was already crying. “My son died two weeks ago,” she said. “This is a very hard day for me.” We had a prayer together to honor her son, and she went away weeping.

A sixty-something-year-old couple approached. One of them from Germany, the other from Spain, now living together in Austria. They were so eager for the ashes and the blessing of remembering they are “mortal” yet Christ is with them to connect them to God forever.

A mother and her two little girls—perhaps six years and four years—came by. The girls couldn’t get their eyes off the ashes, so the mother asked them if they would like ashes on their forehead. The older sister nodded, and her little sister followed suit. We offered the sign of the cross—a symbol of God’s love.

A young law student at Loyola, several visitors to Chicago, others hurrying on their way to work, many Roman Catholics who crossed themselves after the ashes and blessing, all stopped for ashes. A young man in his twenties in a Cubs jacket, looking very troubled, stopped, looked at the church hesitantly. I asked him if he would like ashes on his forehead for Ash Wednesday. Not sure but then fighting back tears, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sure, I really need all the help I can get.” He had a suitcase with him, which made me wonder if he had just been kicked out of his home, by parents or maybe a partner. He received the ashes, and then asked, “Is it OK if I go in and pray in the church?” Any time, I said, as I pointed to the sign inviting people to come in.

A Polish woman approached who tried to explain to me that she didn’t understand English. She pointed to the ashes and nodded her head. Then after the cross on her forehead, she looked up and spoke a phrase in Polish that felt deeply liturgical, smiled, and said, “Yes, I understand.”

It is impossible to intuit what each person receiving ashes was thinking, but for many, I couldn’t help but feel they had not been active in their faith for a long time, and their facial expressions, often with tears in their eyes, conveyed to me a “connection” with God and their faith they had not experienced in a long time—a homesickness of the soul.

—David Handley
Ash Wednesday 2019