A centuries-old ritual will move beyond the four walls of the church as several metro-area clergy take the traditional Ash Wednesday observance to the streets.
At St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, the Rev. Joseph Alsay, rector, said his church will participate in Ashes to Go, a nationwide initiative started in 2007 by an Episcopal rector in St. Louis.
Alsay said he and a deacon will stand in the parking lot of the church, 14700 N May Ave., from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday to offer the imposition of ashes to people as they drive by.
Alsay said one of his church members jokingly referred to the short take on the traditional ritual as “ash and dash.”
“It's evangelism, believe it or not,” Alsay said.
Ash Wednesday marks the first day of the Christian season of Lent. It is the seventh Wednesday before Easter Sunday.
Ashes used to observe the day often come from the burning of palm leaves used during Palm Sunday services the previous year. During Ash Wednesday services at churches around the world, the ashes are placed on the forehead of congregants in the sign of the cross.
The words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” remind believers of their mortality — that they are on Earth for a short time.
Alsay said he thought the Ashes to Go idea was a novel approach to outreach. He said he thinks some people may stop by for the Ash Wednesday ritual because it is convenient or because they want to participate in the religious observance but do not attend church.
Reaching out to students, workers
The ritual also will go mobile in other ways in the state.
The Rev. Michael Stephenson, interim rector at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Stillwater, said he offered the imposition of ashes to students and other passers-by on the Oklahoma State University campus last year as part of Ashes to Go. Stephenson said a chaplain for the Canterbury Association ministry on the OSU campus planned to do the same this year in front of the Chi-O Clock from 10 to 10:30 a.m. and from 2 to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“The idea is to take at least elements of the church to where people are, as opposed to waiting for them to come to the church,” Stephenson said. “We need to be a visible presence out in the community and creatively reaching out in the community.”
Stephenson said about 30 people stopped at the Chi-O Clock on Ash Wednesday in 2012. He said before they left with the familiar cross made with ashes on their forehead, he shared several prayers and a brief portion of the traditional Ash Wednesday liturgy with them.
“It's conspicuous — you stand out a bit, but it's an important statement,” Stephenson said. “The church is not a building that you go to — it's everywhere.”
The Rev. Roberto Quant, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Oklahoma City, said he will go to several restaurants Wednesday to offer the imposition of ashes to employees whose work schedule will prevent them from attending an Ash Wednesday Mass. Quant said he has been making the rounds to local establishments for several years as a way to serve his parishioners who dislike missing out on the traditional religious observance.
Sacred ritual offered to sick
There is a segment of the community who cannot attend a traditional Ash Wednesday church service because they have been hospitalized.
Some hospitals, aware of this traditional observance, allow chaplains and other clergy to offer the imposition of ashes at a patient's request.
Paul Lewis, a deacon at Our Lady's Cathedral and director of pastoral services at Mercy Oklahoma City, said he expects several patients to ask for a bedside observance of the ritual.
Lewis said the hospital also planned to hold an Ash Wednesday service in its chapel near the gift shop.
Lewis said he knows the Ash Wednesday ritual is important for many faithful Christians because it is a way to mark the beginning of the Lenten season.
At St. Augustine of Canterbury, Alsay said he planned to brave cold weather Wednesday to offer the outreach.
He said at least one of his church members said the Ashes to Go initiative was a challenging concept to accept. However, Alsay said the congregant followed that by saying that if even one person benefited from it, it would be considered a success.
“We have to be careful about being enculturated. We don't ever want to water down our message, but we may want to take the wine of the Gospel and pour it into new wineskins,” he said.
“We will see what the response is.”