To mark the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Christians across the ages have flocked to churches to have their foreheads marked with ashes, a symbol of mortality and penitence. That centuries-old tradition continues today in Christian communities around the world.
Here on Martha’s Vineyard, Father Brian Murdoch of Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven will be taking it to the street. On Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, Father Murdoch will offer the imposition of ashes to travelers and passersby at the Steamship Authority lot In Vineyard Haven from 11:30 am until 12:30 pm.
“It’s a way to meet people spiritually in the midst of their busy lives,” explained Father Murdoch in a telephone interview.
Just as he would at the altar rail in church, the priest will mark each person’s forehead with the ashes and intone the traditional scriptural admonition: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
“The power of that is it signals our mortality, and quickens us to know this spirit of Christ that continues to be calling to us, present to us along the way,” Father Murdoch said.
Several other Grace Church lay leaders will be on hand to greet participants, offer information and a handout titled “Father Brian’s Top Ten Ways to Make a Real and Holy Lent.”
Father Murdoch explained that a mindful Lent can be spiritually restorative, and lead to new life, a new way of seeing things.
This is the second year that Father Murdoch has offered the Ash Wednesday ritual at the SSA lot. Last February, despite wintry weather conditions, some 40 individuals came forward to receive ashes.
The aim is to enable those who cannot get to a church service due to work, travel, or other scheduling conflicts to receive ashes and observe Lent’s beginning. It may be a reminder for those who have overlooked the date, especially since Lent starts early this year.
“Ash Wednesday sneaks up on people,” said Father Murdoch.
According to Father Murdoch, a few Episcopal congregations began the practice of offering ashes in public locations outside church walls barely 10 years ago. Currently many Episcopal churches and some other denominations take part. It has become widespread especially in major U.S. cities, with Ashes to Go at train, bus, and metro stations, shopping and business areas, and on church steps, sidewalks, and in parking lots.
Before coming to Grace Church, Father Murdoch took part in this Ash Wednesday ritual on Boston Common, with extremely positive response.
A website, ashestogo.org, lists at least 20 states where Christians can receive the outdoor sacrament, and explains: “We take ashes to the street corner because that reminder of need, humility, and healing shouldn’t be confined to a church building. We probably need it more when we are in the middle of our daily business!”
With its reminder of mortality and emphasis on penitence, fasting, and prayer, Lent is considered the most solemn season of the church year. Father Murdoch, however, reflected that there is a bright and hopeful aspect to Lent, with its movement toward not only Christ’s Resurrection but also springtime and light.
“Coming during the long dark days of winter, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40-day journey to the rising at Easter that comes in the earth and in our souls,” he said.