“What’s the deal?” Norton asked.
“It’s Ash Wednesday. It’s a reminder of our dependence on God,” said the Rev. Peter Schell, a 32-year-old Episcopal priest, at once explaining the start of Lent and the reason he was offering to etch the mark of Christian faith on the foreheads of passersby as they headed for offices, which, for the most part, would appear faith-free.
“Huh,” Norton said noncommittally before heading off to his job as a mobile app designer for PBS.
In fact, Norton, a Catholic, had a lot more to say about wearing ashes. He planned to get them during a midday Mass near his office. On Ash Wednesdays, he’s picked the time to receive the mark based on “how self-confident I’m feeling” about sharing his beliefs. It depends on how empathetic he’s feeling toward people who have felt rejected by the Catholic Church, or religion in general. Or whether he feels he’s wearing his Christianity for pure, selfless reasons and not “showing my faith in a pompous way.”
This is the sort of reflection Schell and other priests had hoped to bring about when they took to Union Station and a handful of Metro stops around the region at morning rush hour to offer ashes and a prayer — an acknowledgment that many Americans are no longer going to houses of worship, so the houses of worship need to come to them.
More than 200 Protestant congregations across the country now offer ashes in public places on Ash Wednesday, according to Ashes to Go, a national organization that began the practice about five years ago. The day marks the beginning of Lent, a 40-day period of reflection and fasting that ends on the Thursday before Easter.
The public displays come at a time when Americans, particularly younger ones like Norton, are more cautious about openly professing their spiritual identities, according to two decades of data from the Barna Group, a major research firm on U.S. religion. One reason is that, in an increasingly pluralistic society, some see overtly religious jewelry or T-shirts, or even an ancient, liturgical ritual such as ashes during Lent as a possible imposition on others who do not share the same beliefs.
The trend also stems from a fear of oppression by a secular culture and partly from a personal challenge, said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group and author of several books on young Christians. In a society questioning the very truth of God, what do you really believe?
“In the past, evangelism didn’t have that high a standard; you were sort of signing people up for something they already were predisposed to accept,” Kinnaman said. “Today it’s about people asking: How does that translate into real transformation? When I wear something, what is this saying about me?”