Today Christians begin the Lenten journey, the long season of reflection and introspection. To mark the beginning of the season, many Christians from more liturgical traditions will participate in a worship service wherein they will be encouraged to contemplate both their sinfulness and their mortality (let the self-flagellating begin!). At one point in the service, the priest or pastor will mark their forehead with ashes in the shape of a cross and declare something along the lines of “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The imposition of the ashes is followed by a litany of repentance that is both individual and communal.
It has become trendy in my denomination (The Episcopal Church) to go out and meet people on the street, at train stations, and in other public places and to impose ashes on any who want them. Ashes “on the go” is the church’s way of engaging the world. I think it is bullshit. As a caveat, I am new to liturgical traditions, having begun my journey with the Episcopal church 12 years ago while I was in seminary. Also, and related, I am not a sacramental or liturgical theologian. I am sure that those more ensconced in this way of doing Christianity may have some helpful responses to my critiques. And I welcome them.
First, as noted above, the Ash Wednesday liturgy provides a space for people to reflect on both their sins and to contemplate their mortality. The service guides the participants through reflection and confession. The imposition of the ashes is given a context in which they act is interpreted and given meaning. Questions: If people who are grabbing ashes on the go do not have 45 minutes to slow down and reflect on their humanity what then is the function of the ashes? Is the 3 second line “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” a sufficient reminder?
Second, also in the service, participants hear the important words from the Gospel of Matthew, “But when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces [and put dirt on their foreheads] so as to show you that they are fasting. Truly, I tell you, they have received their award.” Again it is the liturgy that provides a context for understanding the significance of this very public display of one’s piety. Do not these ashes on the go do the very thing that Jesus warned against?
Third, the act of receiving ashes on the street is incredibly individual. The service is clear about the individual and the corporate nature of our sin. We participate in larger systems of injustice, and our church is one of those larger systems. We need to be reminded that when we wear the cross on our forehead we are wearing a symbol of violence and oppression. Our corporate confession encourages us to think hard about how we need to be transformed, both as individuals and as a community. The lack of deep reflection that accompanies ashes on the go encourages us to maintain the status quo.
I have heard that priests are drawn to this practice because it represents the church going out into the world to meet people where they are at. Again, I think this is bullshit. It reinforces the idea that what happens in worship is irrelevant and unnecessary (I am surprised that many of those who are the most rigid about doing the liturgy perfectly are also those who are flocking to the streets to impose ashes… what is up with that?). The vital importance of community is undermined. Moreover, if this is the best that the church can offer in terms of engaging the world then the church truly is useless. What about the real issues facing people daily–hunger, poverty, violence, oppression? Where is the church’s public engagement in these genuinely horrible crises? In this feeble attempt to be the church in the world what the church is actually proclaiming is that we cannot meet real daily challenges but we can give you a public display of your completely effortless and empty piety.
So there they are. My fighting words. My line in the sand. Let’s dance!