ROCKLAND, Maine — Still wearing her apron, Mary Lou Post on Wednesday morning walked across Main Street from her job at the Brass Compass Cafe to ask the Rev. Lael Sorensen a question.
“Are you doing ashes?”
The Episcopal priest and two of her parishioners stood on the sidewalk, umbrellas in tow with portable ash containers and a sign that read, “Got Ashes?”
Post, who grew up Episcopalian and heard about Ashes to Go in the news, said she wouldn’t have had time to go by church Wednesday to participate. Knowing she would be able to access the tradition so close to her workplace “is just a wonderful idea,” she said.
Sorensen was one of nearly a dozen Episcopal priests in eight or so Maine communities who took to the streets Wednesday to place ashes in the sign of the cross on the foreheads of neighbors and strangers to mark the beginning of Lent.
Receiving the ashes represents “a desire to turn toward God,” Sorensen, the rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church said Wednesday morning outside Rock City Cafe in downtown Rockland.
This is the first year the Rockland church has taken to the streets, “to go where the people are. What better place to meet people” than to leave the sanctuary and meet them in their personal and professional lives, “where the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” are most likely to affect them, Sorensen said.
The point of being in public isn’t to proselytize, Sorensen said. Rather, the public offering of repentance and prayer is simply made available if people want it.
“Some people may just want to be prayed with,” Lucia Elder, a St. Peter’s parishioner and Ashes to Go volunteer, said.
“Everyone needs someone who will stand with them in love and in honesty,” Sorensen said. It serves as a reminder, not just about God and the need for repentance, but that “there’s a community that longs to embrace you to the extent you’re comfortable with.”
The now international program called “ Ashes to Go” began in 2010 in Chicago when priests distributed ashes on suburban train platforms, according to information posted on its website. It spread to other dioceses and in 2012 more than 80 churches in 21 states took up the practice.
That year, the practice was first held in Monument Square where a Portland priest dispensed blessings and ashes to more than 100 passersby during the busy noon hour, according to the Episcopal Diocese of Portland.
“Not everyone is able to be in their church today. It’s a way of bringing the church’s presence outside a building and offering an opportunity for people to practice their faith as they go about their daily life and work,” the Rev. Larry Weeks of Trinity Episcopal and St. Peter’s Episcopal in Portland said in a recent diocesan press release. He and Bishop Stephan T. Lane were scheduled to be in the square Wednesday morning through noon.
Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence. Since the Middle Ages, it has been customary for Christians to begin Lent by being marked in ash with the sign of the cross.
Participating in Ash Wednesday can simply mean, “God, help me look at my life clearly, and help me see you are with me,” Sorensen, the Rockland priest, said.
In addition to Rockland and Portland, ashes also were offered on the streets of Windham, Wilton, Winthrop, Brunswick, Bath and Waterville, according to the diocesan news release.