At U. of C., Ashes to Go reminds Christians of their mortality in a hurry

The Rev. Stacy Alan imposes ashes on Maya Rodriguez as two University of Chicago students, Connor Hickey and Kaitlyn Russell, look on. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff Writer

Just as it has for the past 2,000 years, Lent began today, which Christians around the world commemorated by having crosses marked in ash on their foreheads, a reminder of mortality and the transience of life.

This ceremony is typically carried out as part of a church service, but clergy have embraced brevity lately, giving them out freely with a prayer at train stations and public squares. At the University of Chicago’s Reynolds Club student center, the Rev. Stacy Alan, a religious advisor at the Spiritual Life Office, was offering the ashes alongside a prayer for forgiveness.

“Ash Wednesday has a dual focus of reminding us all of our mortality but also reminding us of all of our sinfulness, that we’ve all fallen short of what we aspire to,” said Alan, who is also a chaplain at Brent House, 5540 S. Woodlawn Ave., the Episcopal campus ministry. She said those concepts are addressed by most of humanity’s religious traditions; a Jewish student who inquired earlier about the holy day compared it to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Alan said the common refrain on Ash Wednesday — “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” — is “strangely encouraging to people.” “It’s strange how you see people’s faces light up when they come by and see this table. I think there’s something about being told the truth about yourself, because we’re all going to die.” She called mortality “the profound human truth.”

“Ashes to Go” strips away a church service’s ceremony. It can be done in under a minute. Alan said the event often reminds people that Lent has begun, and she had a list of local services at hand.

But some people will never go to church for whatever reason, she said. While attending a service is ideal, “I don’t see that it does anything to take away from what the church rightly offers,” Alan said. “It is a reminder in a world where Ash Wednesday is simply not on the radar.”

The imposition of ashes is not a sacrament like baptism or communion. “It’s a sign,” Alan said. “We’re out in the places where people are, giving them that sign. And I’ve started enough conversations with people where they may go further into exploring some of the questions that are raised. It literally has reconnected me with students whom I haven’t seen in a while, who are more likely to come back around to our services or to their home services.”

Alan said that those imposing the ashes find it to be meaningful, too. “I suspect that it is a different kind of touch than we usually do in public. It’s very gentle, and it’s very accessible. It’s very powerful to look at someone and say, ‘You are dust. You will die. Just as I will.’” She said the ceremony gives “a paradoxical comfort.”

Michael DiStefano, an undergraduate, was meeting his tutor at Reynolds Club, walked past Alan, “saw the dust and figured it’d be easier than going to St. Thomas.” Three strangers, two students and an alumna, came up after him, recited the prayer with Alan, got marked with crosses and thanked her.

“I didn’t know I needed it, but I did,” said Maya Rodriguez, who works at the University.