Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ashes to ashes...

Ash Wednesday is here. You might see people walking around with smudges of dust on their faces--it's okay, they mean to do that.

This is one day in the church's life when we acknowledge, out loud and in public, that we are not the super-people we think we are or would like to be--we are temporary (or, as one youth ministry writer says, "we are all interims"). Our existence is temporary, and will come to an end...for many of us, sooner than we would like.

It's a harsh word, but a true one.

Most of us receive this word today in the company of others who are hearing the same harsh words, spoken with love. We surround each other with grace that is hard to believe in the context of the words "you are dust..." We pray together, we admit our wrongs and our failings together, we practice saying "I'm sorry" and meaning it, we listen for hope in the darkness, we feel the grittiness of loss on our skin...together. We are alone in our reality, but also not.

There is a movement now called Ashes-To-Go, where pastors and priests have taken ashes to the streets. I can't decide if I love or hate this idea.

On the one hand, I am all about going to where the people are, bringing our liturgy to the streets, reclaiming rituals, and reminding people of God's love in the midst of their daily lives. In that sense, Ashes-To-Go are one of the coolest things ever--they are offered as a reminder of so many things, all in a minute or two on a train platform or on a street corner. Getting the church outside the walls, finally!

On the other hand, I worry that it turns the observance of Ash Wednesday into just another display that doesn't come with meaning. It's profoundly individualistic, really, to just "get smudged" and go on your way without the confession, without the community. Who is going to walk beside these people in the moment the ashes become more real than they imagined? Who is going to hold them accountable when they fail (and they will--we all do) at turning toward God this season, or the next? What do the ashes mean to people who do not receive them along with the words of lament and promise, or for whom this is the one religious thing they'll do all year?

It feels a little like the opposite of the Matthew 6 reading usually appointed for this day, the one about not making a show of your spiritual life, warning us to beware those who are public in their prayers but shallow in their faith.

I haven't fully thought this through, I'm only noticing that I'm mildly uncomfortable. I guess I just don't know why people would want to receive ashes alone, or what they mean outside of the context of a community, and I'm a little afraid the answer is "because it's what we are supposed to do."


  1. Or maybe what it means is that people are trying to respond to an invitation to something much bigger than they are, and they don't know how to do that in community unless it's, like, the Superbowl. Because how would they?

  2. I think I kind of love the Ashes-To-Go, because it seems reckless--like people are putting the ashes out there, without controlling them, not knowing what the effect will be. Who knows what God can do with them...

  3. I just am not comfortable with it. And I really don't know why.
    But I also believe one never knows what God can do with it. I really need to discern why it bothers me I guess.

  4. Thank you for this discussion. I was struggling with the theology behind this new-ish practice. Love the concept of taking liturgy to the streets.