Humble ritual recalls brevity of life amid towers of power

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 26, 2015

A smudge of ashes in form of a cross on foreheads on Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent for many Christians.
Selfie by Warren Harbeck

Smudging ashes? On strangers’ foreheads? On street corners in downtown Calgary?

Our coffee companion Kristian Wold had my attention as we visited together earlier this week at Coffee Traders.

Kristian and his family moved to Cochrane two years ago. He agrees that our little foothills town is a heavenly haven for outdoor enthusiasts like himself.

He is also the co-pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in northwest Calgary and a fellow director with me on the Calgary Council of Christians and Jews.

Cups in hand, we got to chatting about various ways Canadian Christians celebrate Lent, and especially about their traditions related to Ash Wednesday.

Lent is that period of approximately 40 days (not counting Sundays) which began this year on Feb. 18 (Ash Wednesday) and ends on April 2, the Thursday before Easter. It has held a special place in the liturgical practices of Lutheran churches, as well as of Catholic, Anglican, United, and Presbyterian churches. More recently, many evangelical churches are also embracing its significance.

Lent is a time for prayerful contemplation of life’s brevity in a spirit of repentance and with special attention to the needs of others.

Ash Wednesday services in Kristian’s denomination typically feature the pastor smudging a cross of palm ashes on the foreheads of those attending, while reciting the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

That usually happens inside a church. But not this time. . . .

As part of an international programme known as Ashes to Go, Kristian and some fellow pastors had taken the ashes of Ash Wednesday out of church buildings and right onto busy street corners in the heart of Calgary’s business district.

“That afternoon I had the opportunity to say the words, ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,’ over and over again to people on the street who stopped by our little station to receive the sign of the cross on their foreheads,” Kristian told me.

“Without exception, they expressed their gratitude for this small, holy moment that came to them unexpectedly in the midst of their daily lives.”

Some would linger for a few minutes and share their own stories, perhaps of being newly arrived refugees to Canada, or of being tourists from another country “longing to worship on Ash Wednesday but not knowing where to find a church.”

Not many of the well-dressed stopped by, he said. “Instead, I couldn’t help noticing that it was the newcomers to this land, the lowly service industry workers, and the street people who came to us with joy and gratitude.”

Kristian himself received the smudge of the cross on his forehead from his Roman Catholic colleague at their streetside station.

“I was deeply moved,” he said. “All of us were together that day, finding significance in this ancient ritual and meaning for our lives today.”

Kristian shared with me a copy of the Ash Wednesday sermon he delivered to his own congregation that evening. In it he reflected on one particular reason why his street corner experience meant so much to him.

“I myself have always loved this peculiar ritual of our church, out of step with the spirit of our times as it is,” he told them.

“For we are a busy, success-oriented people who go to great lengths to cultivate images of power, youth, and beauty for ourselves. A good self-image and a high self-esteem are considered to be very important for our mental health.

“And there we were, amongst the symbols of our culture’s power and strength – the towering highrises in which the business of this city is conducted – telling people that they were dust. It goes against the grain, somehow; it seems counter-intuitive, but there it is.”

Yes, there surrounded by towering glass and steel, as Kristian so humbly shared with me over our morning coffee, he realized that all those buildings, too, would someday be mere dust.

“The remembrance that we are dust restores us to the true sources of our life: each other, the earth, and God,” he said. “We can just be ourselves: weak, afraid sometimes, in need of others, and finally mortal.

“We can be dust, remembering also that God loves dust.”


© 2015 Warren Harbeck

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