Rather than waiting for people to come to church on Ash Wednesday, the Rev. John Toles decided to go to them.
Toles, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Billings, left the reverent quiet behind to stand at Skypoint, outside Rock Creek Coffee Roasters at the intersection of North Broadway and Second Avenue North.
Cars and trucks rumbled by. Pedestrians picked their way through remnants of dirty snow as they crossed the street.
A rivulet of water cascaded off the downtown architectural centerpiece. Occasionally, small snow bombs dropped from Rock Creek’s roof to the sidewalk below.
But for two hours, including the busy lunch rush, Toles offered to make the sign of the cross in ash on the foreheads of the steady stream of people who passed by.
“Hi, would you like ashes?” Toles asked a man, who walked on and said nothing.
“You fellows need ashes for Ash Wednesday?” he called out to a couple of others.
“No we don’t,” one man replied. “But thanks.”
Toles, dressed in his cassock, a silver cross hanging around his neck and a black cross smeared above his brow, got many polite refusals. But occasionally a passer-by would stop and let the priest daub ash on his or her forehead.
Toles held a pill bottle filled with ash, which after the first hour coated his hands. The ash comes from last year’s palm fronds, used on Palm Sunday.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” Tole would say as he smudged the ash with his right thumb.
One couple, Helen and Bob Hanson, in town from White Sulphur Springs for a doctor’s appointment, belong to St. Bartholomew Catholic Parish. They paused to have the cross placed on their foreheads.
“We’re not going to get to Mass on time, so this made it convenient for us,” Helen Hanson said.
Another man, dressed in a business suit, initially declined the offer. But he changed his mind and came back to get the sign of the cross.
You have free articles remaining.
A Methodist pastor, who would preside over a service later in the day, stopped by to get the ash marking. When Toles asked a young woman if she wanted the ashes, she replied “Sure,” and paused just long enough for Toles to apply the dark cross before she walked on.
Ash Wednesday kicks off the 40-day season of Lent. It’s a time of prayer, fasting and abstinence when Christians prepare their hearts for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, celebrated on Easter.
Denominations that observe Ash Wednesday include the Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics.
“We take a much closer look at our lives and our relationship to God,” Toles said of Lent. “And it’s a way to say, ‘Is there anything in my life that is distancing me or placing a barrier between me and God and if so, how do I go about removing that?’ ”
A lot of people decide to give something up for Lent. A survey done using Twitter listed chocolate, alcohol and Twitter as three top items this year, according to christianitytoday.com.
“My question on that is how well does that enhance your relationship with God?” Toles said. “Those types of things are all well and good as acts of willpower, but it has nothing to do with nurturing your relationship with the Father.”
Instead, Toles suggested, people might consider giving up 30 minutes of TV to focus on prayer and Bible study. Or they might give up their daily latte and donate that money to the poor.
Toles planned to preside at a service Wednesday evening. But he decided to follow the example of Pope Francis earlier in the day and hit the streets.
“To see him get out and take the church outside the door and go out into the world, that’s setting an example not only for clergy but for all of the congregation,” Toles said. “It’s not about what we can do in the pews. It’s about what we can do in the world.”
Stephanie Cliff, 27, of Billings, was downtown for some appointments when she bumped into a man who asked if he looked funny with the ash cross he wore. He had gotten it from Toles.
Cliff attends church at Hope Center in Billings and also goes to a Catholic church at Crow Agency. She hadn’t taken part in an Ash Wednesday service for a couple of years, but it was part of her life growing up.
“I said, ‘Is it Ash Wednesday already?’ ” Cliff said. “I decided that’s what I wanted to do, too.”
So she went up to the priest and held still while he applied the ash. Then she went on her way.