Many of my friends and fellow priests have gotten involved in Ashes-to-Go. The idea is to go out into the streets and other public venues to impose ashes on passers-by. There is much to be admired in the effort – the church does need to find ways to bring its witness out into the byways. We also need to be flexible and recognize that the days when the culture around us pauses for Holy Days has, indeed, passed. Yet I have found myself feeling a sense of vague discomfort with the practice.
Of course, existing in a time of change is always uncomfortable and no matter the various ways we look for to meet the changing world, they will always cause some measure of disquietude. After a couple of long conversations about Ashes-to-Go with friends and colleagues I had come to the conclusion that it might not be such a bad idea. Then came Ash Wednesday.
The call to a holy Lent from the Prayer Book reads as follows:
“This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”
Lent and Ash Wednesday are presented in the context of the fullness of the Christian life and faith. Moreover they are part of the life of the community of faith (the whole congregation). The time of repentance and restoration was a time for pondering how we have erred in our Christian pilgrimage, to repent, and to resolve to amend our lives in such a way so as to live into the fullness of the promise of Christ.
My concern about Ashes-to-Go is that it sits apart from the fullness of the Christian message of new life and reconciliation with God and one another. Those receiving ashes hear and receive only one part of the message – they are marked with the sign of sin and death without its being situated within the context of the pledge of our redemption. The sign seems ill administered without the Sacrament.
It becomes a reminder of only one part of the Christian story. Moreover, it is a quick reminder of a much deeper process and imparts upon the reception a singular and momentary quality that invites one to a speedy Lent rather than a fuller examination of conscience and amendment of life.
The Prayer Book continues, “And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.” Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the work of Lent and is meant to initiate a deep engagement with the self, the other, and God. We hear in the liturgy that, “it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life.” Ashes-to-Go does not offer the chance to situate our repentance within the grace of Christ’s great gift.
It is as if we were to only say “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” from Psalm 51 without hearing “Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.” Within the fullness of the liturgy we are able to say, with confidence, “Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation.” For we hear of the rest of the story – that God’s saving action will never let dust, ashes, sin, or death be our end. Ashes-to-Go ends the story entirely too quickly for we do not hear and know the assurance that “He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.”
I worry that we are sharing only the mark of our separation from God rather than our conviction that God dwells ever with us and that this very dust that we are may be hallowed, sanctified, blessed, and even assumed. This reconciliation of ourselves to God brings with it the welcome to live in the fullness of the Christian life. We are given the hope that “being reconciled with one another,” we may “come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food” and receive all of the benefits of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Ash Wednesday is not about our sins alone but about our life in and with the Triune God who calls us into true life – a life free of the mark of death.
This simply cannot be communicated in a drive-by encounter. The sign of death is decisively stripped away in the Sacrament – it is that encounter with the Christ made known in the Body at the Altar and in the Church that is the point of Lent as we are brought into Communion and community.
My worry about Ashes-to-Go is that it reinforces the privatized spirituality that plagues much of the Church. “I” do not get ashes. “We” get ashes so that we may know ourselves, as a Body, to be marked for a moment but saved, together, forever.
I can’t help but liken Ashes-to-Go to the signs I used to see at every sports event in Mississippi that had “John 3:16” emblazoned on them. I always wondered if these really changed hearts or simply heartened those carrying them. I suppose that is a good thing in and of itself. This quick ashing seems to be a too brief declaration that simplifies the Christian story in the way of those home-made placards.
On the plus side, I think it is absolutely vital for the Church to find ways to engage the changing world. This may be one such way – yet I cannot quite get comfortable with it. I am increasingly leery of the Church’s desire to find ways to make the work of the Christian life easier or faster – especially as it pertains to this most sombre and needful of seasons.
My hope though is that Ashes-to-Go really can become an entry point and that those who receive these ashes will be drawn to the Church in a fuller and deeper way. Perhaps this brief encounter can catalyze some movement of the Spirit that calls the recipients to newness of life. I look forward to talking with my friends about their experience of the day and pray that their efforts have shared something of the fullness of the Christian life.
This is one of those cases where I hope I am wrong for I see the need, the energy, and the creativity that are all at work.