Ashes whither?

Ashes to GoThis week, in addition to repentance, papal resignations, and Lent Madness, a looming big topic is Ashes to Go. My friend Emily Mellott is perhaps the major force behind the trend, and we’ve had some great conversations about the practice. If you haven’t heard about this practice of imposing ashes in public places on Ash Wednesday, go learn more. Not everyone likes the idea (examples here and here).

I can see rational cases in favor of and against the practice. But I have to say, I find the arguments in favor of Ashes to Go more persuasive than those opposed to it. Yes, it’s true that fully committed Christians must surely present themselves for the imposition of ashes in the context of a full celebration of Holy Eucharist. But we are not the audience for Ashes to Go.

The world is more full of seekers and wanderers than it is of disciples. Our task, as Christians, is to share the Good News and preach a gospel of hope in a world without much real hope. If we limit ourselves to those who would cross our thresholds first, we will be limited indeed. The imposition of ashes is not a sacrament. One need not be baptized to receive them. And, it seems to me, the act of receiving an ashen cross and a reminder of one’s mortality is as good an invitation to repent as many will ever receive. That gray cross is a powerful sign, even when that’s all there is.

Let’s look at it another way. What’s the down side of Ashes to Go? Might we cheapen the experience for “real” Christians? Surely not. Those who have committed themselves to the faith will hardly equate a quick prayer at a train station with a full-on Ash Wednesday liturgy with a Christian community. Might we cheapen the Christian faith for those who are seeking? I don’t think so, though no one could be sure. It seems to me that lay leaders and clergy who don vestments are, in some ways, taking Paul up on his offer to be fools for Christ. And the morning commuter is taking a more than a small risk walking onto a train with an ash cross on her or his forehead.

If Ashes to Go is a replacement for the Christian community gathering for the beginning of Lent, then I would be worried. That’s not what’s happening though. Rather, Ashes to Go is a complement to the gathered community, an opportunity both to share the need for Good News and the Good News itself.

With our church finding itself ignored more and more easily in a busy consumer world, I see plenty of good in the act of stepping out into the public square with small containers of ash. I see plenty of risk in the expectation that people must come to us, on our terms.

It seems that we should learn what we can from this practice. Does it draw people into a life in Christ? Does it somehow water down our proclamation? Does it transform lives? While we are asking questions, it makes sense to try this approach to Lent in the world. If, as I suspect, Ashes to Go turns out to be an effective way to transform lives and invite people into the gathered community, by all means, let’s keeping doing it.

Sure, Ashes to Go isn’t for every priest, nor is it for every community. As for me, I will pray for those who will be at train stations, sidewalks, and malls. I will pray for those offering ashes and for those receiving them. May we never forget our mortality and our need of redemption, and may we be willing to remind the whole world of its mortality and need of redemption.

Photo from the Providence Journal.

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7 Responses

  1. Mary Keenan says:

    Amen and Bravo! I can see no downside to taking the church into the world. The response in Austin last year was very positive. We literally had bus drivers get off their buses to receive ashes before resuming their work.

  2. Anne Marie says:

    I don’t know. I’m so torn by this. Part of me says “YES, take the church out to the people.” And part of me says, “Community. What about community? And context?” I replied to an email inviting the priests of our diocese (RI) to participate with an almost immediate yes, and then found that I was putting off making a detailed commitment. In the summer, in the middle of our busy seaside town, we have church outside on our lawn at least once a month (it will be more frequent this year), and that does draw in quite a few curious folks. But what we are sharing with them is the whole thing – all the people, the words, the music, the prayers – not just an excerpt. I think that comes closer to what I think of as taking church to people. Or maybe not. Yeah, like I said, I don’t know.

  3. Br. James Patrick says:

    This is a portion of my response to Fr. Everett who is a personal friend:

    In my mind Ashes to Go is the lesser good. The idea of being part of a community and the full Ash Wednesday service with it’s commitments and introspection is, of course, the most desirable.

    However many people don’t even give the Church or Christ a second thought these days, and being out in the public is a way of getting some, perhaps even only one, to ask “who are these people and why are they doing this”?

    Was it not Jesus Himself who told us to go to the highways and byways to invite people to come in to His feast?

    This isn’t the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and I most certainly will NOT be offering any absolution in any way. It is not mine to give.

    It may be primarily a short prayer, but who knows how the Holy Spirit can work in a person’s heart? I can tell you that with my work on the streets that a short prayer can be very powerful and moving to a lost, hurting soul.

    Also with the handout we give them, perhaps they may FIND a community to join?

  4. Sally Johnston says:

    I think the “newness” is amusing. Unless it’s changed in recent years, “walk through ashings” were a traditional part of Ash Wednesday at Trinity Wall Street and other Manhattan parishes. Seminarians stood in the nave all day (except when there were actual AW services) offering smudge and words to downtown workers, many from the Stock Market, who would zip through and back to work. The only real theological conundrum was when one would open up a plastic bag and ask, “And could I have some to take to Aunt Gladys?”

  5. Adelaide Kent says:

    I think ‘ashes to go’ is a wonderful idea. Some nominally Christian people who would not think to attend a church service or even seek out a church on Ash Wednesday are glad and grateful for the opportunity to receive. It is also a successful opportunity for evangelism

  1. February 12, 2013

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