Outward and Visible Penance

By Nicholas Porter and Dawn Stegelmann

Lent has been considered a time of turning, that time when we personally break from the old and deadly patterns in our lives that are no longer life-giving. This year, our parish clergy decided it was not only a time to turn personally from those patterns but for the Church to turn in some new directions as well. So at 6 a.m. on Ash Wednesday, before offering three services back at the church throughout the day, we made some turns away from the familiar and predictable and headed for the train stations to provide “Ashes on the Go” to our large community of commuters.

Much to our delight and surprise, and with the enthusiastic support of our vestry and parishioners, we encountered numerous people of faith who welcomed the opportunity to receive ashes. Many were hurrying for the train yet stopped and wanted to experience again a cross of ash being placed on their foreheads. There were some who appeared determined to walk past us and then hesitated and turned to us for an imposition. There were others who walked right up and expressed thanks for the opportunity. Even the security officers on duty received ashes and made sure our car would not receive a parking ticket.

Standing on the train platforms with those ash crosses on their foreheads, this group of Christians had just begun their day witnessing with that outward and visible sign and would continue to do so throughout that day. They would all be carrying that sign of the life-giving cross further into the world — into New York City, into their offices, into public places, and back into their homes.

While some will argue that Ashes on the Go might not meet their ecclesiastical expectations, we believe it is more important to see it as one of many opportunities for the Church to return to its humble roots. It is what Jesus did, meeting people when they came to the “well,” those communal places where we gather routinely and where we can plant new seeds of faith in those who continue to yearn for God but no longer have strong roots in a culture where religion is either considered irrelevant or a hot potato.

It’s also important to see it in a pastoral context, one in which technology is taking away people’s discretionary time and where opportunities for religious expression are being eliminated. What should not be underestimated is the spiritual awareness and comprehension of the lay people who came forward. They understood a need for penance. They understood grace and they knew the ash cross on their forehead was as much a confession of sin and faith as it was a blessing for the life to come.

As a church, we will not survive and thrive if we simply remain behind our doors, familiar routines and theological arguments that resist the risks that come with change. Ash Wednesday confirmed to us it’s time to go and meet people right in the midst of their daily routines and reignite their faith. And maybe, just maybe, we will begin to see them return to their church homes or be led to new ones, where they will feel welcomed and embraced by the love of Christ and by those of us who never left.

The Rev. Nicholas T. Porter is rector of Trinity Church, Southport, Connecticut, and the Rev. Dawn Stegelmann is Trinity’s curate.


Online Archives