Parishes, schools and agencies

Bringing ashes to the masses

Stories of urban ministryFor the second year in a row, St George's Malvern has marked the start of Lent with 'Ashes to Go', offering the sign of the cross to commuters at Malvern station.

By Colleen O'Reilly and Jacqui Smith

April 20 2017What are Ashes to Go?

For the second year, the clergy and some parishioners from St George’s Malvern have offered ‘Ashes to Go’ to people coming and going from Malvern Station. An idea first developed in the US and UK, it has been a good way to remind people of the day and season of Lent as it begins.

Ashes are an ancient sign of mortality. It has long been a Christian custom to begin the season of Lent by being marked on the forehead with ash in the sign of the cross. We do so in the services on Ash Wednesday but we wanted to take the sign into the community and use the opportunity to say something to people about the need to slow down and reflect on what really matters.

What do we do?

The clergy wear cassocks and stoles and we have a sign board we set up to identify the activity.

We hand out a brochure, which many take even if they don’t want ash, which seeks to speak to them without religious jargon. The leaflet identifies the parish and provides contact details. We say,

“Life today is fast paced and often stressful. Balancing work and family or social life requires more effort; the world feels less safe and the constant presence of social media and 24 hour news only adds to the pressure.

In poem called As I Walked Out One Evening W H Auden wrote about the risk of allowing our lives to be full of distractions while larger joys pass us by almost unnoticed:

In headaches and in worry

Vaguely life leaks away.

Lent can be a time to pause and ask ourselves what really matters. We’re offering ashes today because this can be a tangible reminder of the need to live more thoughtfully in light of our human shortcomings. It also reminds us that we need inner strength to resist what is wrong and courage to live well. More and more people recognise that our only hope, personally and together, lies in just relationships between individuals and nations, in seeking to live at peace with one another, and in being as loving as we can manage in our actions.

For Christians the motivation for living this way comes from the experience that God loves us and longs for everyone to know and share that love.”

What is the response?

Some people recognise the ashes and are glad to receive a cross on their forehead. Others tell us they will be doing so at lunchtime, or later in the evening. Many just take a leaflet while others just hurry past. This year we reminded the boys going to the local Catholic school what the day was and they assured us they would earn ‘brownie points’ for knowing. We offer ashes only to adults but some parents came up with their children, which we found especially moving. We have had no hostility and the station staff have welcomed us each year, one even asking to be ‘ashed’. 

It has been a good experience and we will keep doing it as a way of being visible in the local community and letting them know the Church is a place where slowing down and pondering life is valued in a crazy world.

This story has been shared as part of Melbourne Bishop Genieve Blackwell's call to parishes in the Marmingatha Episcopate to share their stories of urban ministry. To find out how your parish can get involved, click here.