There is something decidedly public about Ash Wednesday. Walking around all day with a gash of gray ash across one's forehead—this is among the most visible Christian things I do each year. This is a rare day when I cannot and could not hide my Christian commitments and my Christian aspirations, even if I wanted to.
This year, I will be joining many Episcopal priests in taking the public witness of Ash Wednesday one step further. On Wednesday, my colleague Catherine Caimano and I will put on cassocks and surplices, and go to a corner near Duke University Hospital with small containers of ashes and copies of a litany of repentance from the Book of Common Prayer. We will offer "the imposition of ashes" to people in the street.
We will offer to pray with people—prayers that name our failings and our striving to change: "We confess to you and to one another, and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth, that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed," our Ash Wednesday litany bids us to say.
"We confess our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people … our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work … our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us."
And Cathie and I will offer to mark people's forehead with a cross of ashes. As we make the sign of the cross, we will say "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Because we suspect that penitence is usually done best when one joins in a community of people who are pursuing penitence together, Cathie and I will also have on hand small cards listing the whereabouts and Web pages of nearby ...