Ashes at night. Ashes with ecumenical partners. Ashes on the go. And even ashes with glitter.
Those are among a variety of innovative and different ways that United Church of Christ congregations plan to mark Ash Wednesday, observed this week on March 1, as the beginning of the annual Lenten journey — a time of spiritual preparation for Easter, and for spiritual discipline through a period of fasting and penance.
"Ash Wednesday reminds each one of us that we are breathtakingly fragile, faced with the possibility at any moment of dissolving into elemental bits, as one day we all will," said the Rev. Virginia Bauman, pastor of St. John's UCC in Columbus, Ohio. "And yet Ash Wednesday reminds us that rather than being sentenced to death, God showers us with stars in all of life and throughout the universe."
The day starts the season that recognizes the 40 days that Jesus Christ spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying and resisting temptation, before beginning his public ministry.
St. John's UCC commemorates Ash Wednesday with three services — noon, 6 p.m. and a 7 p.m. "Under the Stars" ecumenical service that takes place outdoors in conjunction with other Columbus-area churches. David's UCC, in Canal Winchester, helps coordinate the evening service as a way of meeting people where they are, going beyond the walls of a traditional church.
"Several years ago one of our members, Butch, had a vision to provide meals on Wednesday events for homeless folks who see St. John's as a reading place — there are several homeless sleep outside the church," said the Rev. David Long-Higgins, pastor of David's UCC. "He committed to this ministry on serving meals on Wednesdays, and out of that grew a commitment to feed anyone who shows up [at St. John's].
St. John's UCC also has a meal for the homeless at noon on Wednesdays. "So when Ash Wednesday rolls around, it becomes an opportunity to offer ashes to anyone present," he said. "It's more than one church doing one thing — it's churches working in many locations to serve."
Four Michigan churches in Jackson are coming together tomorrow to offer two Ash Wednesday services at noon and 7 p.m. St. John UCC and First Congregational church UCC pair with ecumenical partners St. James Lutheran Church and Westminster Presbyterian Church.
The Rev. Patti Kenney, in her second year pastoring St. John UCC, says the congregations have a long tradition of cooperating with other churches and religious organizations in Jackson, including sharing in other services such as Good Friday last year, and that Ash Wednesday continues that tradition.
The message of the day will be "God is love," she said.
"God loves all of us, and is always reaching out to us in love, and it's our job to respond, to invite others and to listen and feel God's love and share it with each other," Kenney said. "We're trying to share that message, and right now it's an important message in Jackson because of a non-discrimination ordinance for LGBT people that is in the works... Our church was involved in promoting that."
"It's our intention to do everything we can in our community in God's love," she said.
The name "Ash Wednesday" is derived from the practice of blessed ashes — usually made of palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday — that are placed on the foreheads of participants in the shape of a cross, accompanied by the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," from the book of Genesis.
Bauman recites those words as she marks her congregants with ashes. "As the scent of frankincense and myrrh wafts above those marked with the sign of the cross, I am reminded of the fragrant beauty of life, and of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice so that we too might have life, and have it abundantly," she said.
Among the other emerging, modern nationwide practices on Ash Wednesday are "Ashes to Go" and "Glitter Ashes". Ashes to Go has ministers and lay members in several communities around the country commemorating the day at public transportation stations, coffee shops, college campuses, and church parking lots to mark the foreheads of anyone interested with ashes — another way of taking church to the people.
Glitter Ashes — ashes that are combined with glitter — are a way for progressive Christians to express solidarity with the LGBTQ community. First Congregational onl Church, in Asheville, N.C., plans to offer its parishioners the option of receiving glitter ashes on Wednesday. The church houses an LGBTQ youth group and the offices of the Campaign for Southern Equality, which works across the South to promote full LGBTQ equality.
"Glitter cannot not be darkened," said Yolanda Adams, a ministry coordinator at First Congregational. "It’s there for everyone, and I thought this was a really good way to celebrate."