Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a 40 day period in which Christians prepare for Holy Week and the celebration of Easter. It is a solemn time of prayer, reflection, introspection and fasting.
Around the world today, many will go thru their day wearing a sign of the cross marked in ash on their forehead. The cross symbolic of repentance before God; the ash used to make the mark often produced from the palm fronds that were used during the previous year's Palm Sunday services.
And while traditionally the ashes are applied during mass in church, around the world today, something "different" happened: priests and pastors were seen standing on corners, in mini-malls and near fast food restaurants; at train stations, coffee houses and supermarkets, blessing and anointing the faithful with "ashes to go".
No altar, large crucifix or collection plate in sight – just ashes and faith, plain and simple.
While traditionalists may scoff at the idea of a "pop-up" church of sorts, what started out in 2010 with only three Chicago-area Episcopal congregations taking ashes and prayer out to suburban train stations, hoping to find "commuters hungry for a moment of prayer, renewal and grace" has now grown into an international spiritual movement.
Priests reported finding people in their daily rush-rush to survive often had no time to attend services on a work-day or had simply forgotten it was Ash Wednesday since the holy day can start anywhere from February to March, depending on that year's lunar calendar.
Here in the San Fernando Valley, the Rector of Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Van Nuys and a personal friend, Father Vincent Schwahn spent the day standing on a street corner; Van Nuys and Vanowen marking this holy day.
For an hour I watched as dozens of people came for a blessing and their "ashes to go". Some looked perplexed as Father Vincent, in his priestly robe, stood there surrounded by other clergy members.
Cars honked; truck drivers waved; everyone stared. Some at the red light even waved the Priests over for a real quick blessing that lasted the duration of a red light.
After receiving her ashes, I heard one lady ask if she could confess while she was there. "I really need a blessing", she said to Father Vincent who quickly put the ashes down and took her aside.
By 5:00 today, more than 600 people had received their "ashes to go" on that street corner today. Ashes and a blessing; a wish and a hope for a better tomorrow.
As he rode by on his bicycle, one man stopped to talk to me and said "Well, they teach us God is everywhere so why shouldn't he be here in Van Nuys".
And that reminded me of the old children's rhyme and hand game:
"Here is the church, Here is the steeple
Open the door and See all the people"
And I thought…Here, here on this noisy street corner is the church. There's no need today for a steeple. Or a door. For here is the church and see, see all the people.