Reflecting on the First Sunday in Lent, Jan Richardson in her blog at Painted Prayerbook writes:
"How will we see the angels if we don’t go into the wilderness? How will we recognize the help that God sends if we don’t seek out the places beyond what is comfortable to us if we don’t press into terrain that challenges our habitual perspective? How will we find the delights that God provides even—and especially—in the desert places?"
On Wednesday, my colleague, Aneeta and I, stepped into the courtyard of the downtown Victoria library, a kind of urban wilderness. We hear that people are inured to religion, hostile to those who represent the church and we experience some of that in our encounters with friends and family members when they ask why we go to church or even when we want to say a blessing before meals. I thought of all of these things, as I waited for Aneeta to arrive. I sat on the steps where buskers often sit, feeling vulnerable and awkward as people looked at me and wondered what I was doing there. Some people smiled, others averted their eyes and some, curious, circled around me several times to see what I might be doing there. When Aneeta arrived, we donned our vestments, set up our table with our "Ashes to Go" sign and a basket of beautiful Valentine cards, made by all of you.
The oil and the ashes were on a small table with a purple cloth covering it and we were asked by a few people if the ashes were human remains. We were quick to reassure them that they were not. Aneeta pulled a palm cross out of her pocket and we put it on the table and explained how the palm crosses are gathered up and burned and used for the ashes each year. Some people were unsure of us, some were wary, some were interested and curious. Without exception, children and First Nations people were far more open to us and what we were doing and gracious in accepting our Valentine's. Some people worried that we were a commercial enterprise and needed to ask a lot of questions and look at the Valentine's closely to make sure we weren't advertising or selling anything. A number of people were surprised that it was Ash Wednesday and decided to receive the imposition of ashes, and the reminder that each of us is a part of God's holy compost system, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
In our Diocesan Vision, we are encouraged to engage God's world and Project You are so Loved in conjunction with Ashes to Go, certainly did that. What surprised me was how powerfully the ministry of engaging God's world necessarily engaged Aneeta and I. It was a mutual engagement as people asked questions, listened to our responses and shared their personal realities. We had to think quickly and articulate our faith in ways that those unfamiliar with or disengaged from faith could understand. In doing so, we found our own faith tremendously enriched and expanded. Going into the urban wilderness of downtown Victoria, we were ministered to by angels, and their blessings linger with our spirits as we move into Lent.