Ashes on the go. I don’t get it. At all.

ash-wednesdayToday 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!



Filed under bible, culture, justice, religion

28 responses to “Ashes on the go. I don’t get it. At all.

  1. Peter Howe, Boston MA

    Amen, brother. Persuasively and prophetically said, and an example of where the pungent barnyard epithet is eminently justified. Ashes on the go makes about as much sense to me as high-speed repentance or express absolution.

  2. David J. Lucey

    Dear Creecher,

    Linking it, even as the Diocese of Rhode Island has taken to the streets to impose Ashes.

    Your faithful long distance admirer,
    David (Canon Lucey)

    Now, please, tell us how you really feel.

  3. Eric in RI

    Well said. Agree completely.

  4. G.D.

    I just offered ashes on the go to people today and some cried-they were clearly penitent and it may have been a moment that brings them back to the church.

    • Thanks for the reply, G.D. So in your experience the suggestion that the penitent component is lost does not resonate. Also it sounds like the act is understood to be evangelistic. My bishop here in Chicago described it that way to me on Facebook.

  5. G.D.

    Yes, for many this was not a case of “preaching to the choir”. Some were estranged and some estranged from other faiths not even familiar with ashes. Some of the latter declined ashes but agreed to have us pray over them. I have to think that means something to have a stranger put their hands on you and pray over you on a public street.

  6. Jonathan

    Does Ashes-to-go serve as a replacement for the liturgy or is it a supplement used by those who wouldn’t otherwise mark the start of Lent? If it’s a replacement your criticism is mostly right on, but I suspect that most of those who will receive the imposition of ashes wouldn’t have gone to church either way. If the choice is between ashes only and nothing, it is better to at least receive the ashes.

  7. Kerry Allman

    Here in Western Washington, home of the “none” zone, we have been doing Ashes to Go for a couple of years. This morning, we received this comment on our diocesan website:
    “I cannot tell you how delighted I am by your Ashes to Go program. I just received a blessing at my bus stop at Eastlake and Lynn in Seattle. It was very meaningful; I moved to tears by this unexpected kindness. Blessings to you for offering this ministry”
    Maybe it is bullshit to you, but it wasn’t to her. Who are we called to serve?

    • Thanks, Kerry for this story. I have heard many talk about it being pastoral and evangelistic and this woman’s experience shows that. I suppose I am left with two questions: 1) Is this really serving someone? (Have we really helped them in some significant way? Glad they felt touched but does it really change anything?) 2) Are these the ones we are called to serve? Is this a higher calling? (I am thinking here of really addressing social ills not just pouring warm Jesus.)

      I would love to hear your thoughts if you have time and interest.

      • Kerry Allman

        I appreciate the opportunity to gather my thoughts and ponder some deeper reflections on your questions. I will say, however, that your lovely wife has written far more eloquently than I on this subject! (see below). Most of what I would say probably reflects what she has already written, but here goes:

        We rarely know if any of our interactions with people will make a difference. All we can really do is create opportunities. How people choose to interact with these opportunities is out of our hands. With the Ashes to Go project, we are offering a slice of time for the sacred in the midst of the busyness of life. Some may go to church in response to this, others may not. Even if we planted a seed during this encounter and we never know the outcome, does this mean we shouldn’t offer it in the first place? I don’t think we are offering absolution or cheap grace here. In this short period of time when the priest makes the sign of the cross on a person’s forehead and reminds them of their mortality, there is a connection that is being made. Will there be a change…I don’t know. Should I base my decision to offer this on an ROI basis, I think not.

        I will admit that my initial reaction to this project was skepticism. However, after talking with people who stood on the street corners, offering this moment of sacredness and quiet and hearing the stories, my thoughts on this changed. When you look at photos of this event and see the faces of people receiving ashes in public, I don’t see gimmicks or watered down theology. I see transformation and countenance in their faces in that moment. I see a ministry opportunity that meets people where they are at which can be very powerful. I continue to see it today as I collect the stories from around the diocese.

  8. David,

    I am new to the ashes-to-go movement — heard of it for the first time a couple months ago. This year and next year at PTS I am part of a cohort group made up of students, two faculty and a local pastor organized around the theme of “liturgy and public witness.” We were brainstorming ways to try out what we were talking about — doing something worship-like in public, being social/public witnesses to our faith — and someone suggested giving ashes at the train station. So (admittedly with little theological reflection on what I was about to do) I stood outside Princeton Junction train station this morning with four of my fellow seminarians and offered ashes to commuters. I didn’t like it. Then later on in the morning I went to our campus Lenten service and felt profoundly what you wrote about the careful preparation and structure of liturgy guiding us through reflection and confession, communally — being given context and interpreted meaning. Thanks for helping me think through something that really didn’t sit right. Will be having more conversations about this.


    • Thanks for this comment Julie! So good to hear from you. Of course I will be very curious to hear how you all work this out. Princeton Seminarians are a bright bunch and worth listening to!

      Also, I hear there is a pretty big transition in terms of faculty right now. How is that going for you?

      • Yeah, we’ve lost four of our seven New Testament professors in the last 12 months. There has been some speculation but it really seems each departure was unrelated. It would affect me much more if I were looking to focus on New Testament studies, but as it is I’m not directly affected. I think on the whole though, it will lead to some significant changes for the seminary going forward. Younger faculty to be sure! Our new president, Craig Barnes, started this January, and I am excited for the direction things seem to be going already. For one, he’s made a commitment to preach in chapel every Monday, and that pastoral and pedagogical choice is much different from the last regime! I think it sends a really good message that the administrative demands of ministry do not have to eclipse really excellent preaching of the word.

  9. Husband, first I’m so glad you shared your angst with more people than me 🙂 Secondly, if I had my fingers on this, I would have smoothed over the rough edges and all that BS. Thirdly, I like the idea of creating spaces for the sacred in the midst of everyday life. And yes I do believe that being touched by God changes people, but as many years of ministry has shown me: sometimes you see the fruit right away, and sometimes you have to wait. The seed falls on all sorts of ground, but we still throw it anyways.

    It’s interesting to me that our symbols and sacraments are changing meaning as they function in our times, like having the Eucharist be the entry point that leads to baptism. It’s so much more accessible to people.

    I get the piety issue–or maybe I just never graduated from junior high and am still too hung up because I have never worn the ashes all day. I didn’t feel personally like that symbol communicated to my particular community what was in my heart. It always felt show-off-ish to me.

    So glad you are blogging! Keep it up Darth!

    • Thanks, Jess. I will work on the edge and the language… I think I am still trying to find my Internet voice 🙂

      As to the seeding… What kind of plants are we growing? What kind of fruit do we hope to see? I know you do good work, and I am encouraged by the faith of the children and youth that you have nurtured. I also see a lot of complacency in the broader church and a real lack of transformation. Does this practice further cheapen an already fairly cheap grace?

  10. Clint

    Why do you feel the need to control the context in which the momento mori and the call to repentance is given? The ashes are not a sacramentum, they are not tokens of loyalty to Christ like taking the body and blood, or being brought to the font. They are an aid to a holy life, if only for a fleeting afternoon for some–this is none of our business, really–and sometimes we need to remember that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God, and that includes ashes and a remembrance of one’s mortality. Blessing and calling to remembrance are two things that the church does that no one else does, and as many stories have illustrated, when this is done well people sometimes get a taste of what they’ve been missing and the Spirit moves. Like anything else either within or without the walls of the church, it can be done well and reverently, or badly and without beauty or meaning. If one is not called to go out, then do not go out. We are not all called to be apostles, and there is nothing wrong with that.

    • Thanks for the clarification of terms, Clint. I can see how my use of sacrament is sloppy. I was thinking of it in terms of an “outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace,” a very broad category.

      I am not suggesting that we have to control the context (at least I don’t think I am). What I am suggesting is that the ritual action is a sign that is very ambiguous in its meaning. The Ash Wednesday liturgy provides a context to interpret the sign in a particular way that is both individual and communal and that provides opportunity for (demands?) critical self reflection. Does the significance of the sign fundamentally change when you do it on the go? Is something lost? I think the answer is yes to the first question. I do not know the answer to the second question.

      As to the being sent out, again the question for me is what exactly are we proclaiming? I understand that many see it as an evangelistic expression of grace. The grace that is proclaimed seems somewhat empty to me. I suspect that Bonhoeffer would not be happy. Then again, as you suggested could happen, in church it often feels that way as well.

  11. Ashes to Go is a great ministry to the unchurched and disenfranchised of the world. Who knows? The simple words of that “dust” quote might just resonate with someone, and they might return to church and get the deep meaning that we all do from a complete service. (The “dust” saying still gives me the chills after many years of hearing it.) The sacraments can be offered outside of church as well. At my city church, the priest occasionally does an outdoor communion in a tiny park between the sidewalk and parking lot. Passers-by can participate, or not, and that is fine. The church needs priests and ministers who engage people from outside the choir. And the choir can learn a thing or two from that.

  12. Blair Mgbada

    Ahh.. pretty well said
    Matthew 6:17-18 is part of a verse that gives instructions for fasting.
    “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
    Just supporting your argument. Feel free to interpret that anyway you like and that goes for anyone reading this.

    I personally don’t like the idea of bragging. Literally seeing ash on people’s heads turns me away from the purpose. It reminds me of how people don’t really know why they go to church. Kind of a different story, but if you think about it, don’t a lot of people (women specifically) place so much effort into getting dressed and ready to be there? I feel like people forget the church is in essence, a hospital as opposed to some place to feel like you’re doing the right thing or some place to show off.

    Shifting back to Ash wednesday, i just agree with the contradiction of what Jesus wants in accordance with what the bible says.

  13. Sue

    Feeling ambivalent? Well, yes and no. On one hand, who am I to place limits on the capacity of God to use ashes and my thumb as a channel of grace for someone. On the other hand, ashes on the go has a trendy feel to it that automatically makes me suspicious — which of course says a lot more about me than about the practice.

    Was all set to offer ashes at a daily hotlunch program sponsored by Episcopal Community Services in Kansas City and upon whose board I serve. And then I found myself questioning whether a well-fed employed priest was the appropriate one to remind homeless people of their mortal nature and of their need to rely on the tender mercy of God. Resolved instead that I should humbly ask God to use me as a vehicle of grace. Woke up the next day with the idea of warm moist washcloths offered to dusty homeless folk. Partnered up with a fellow clergyperson, prepared a 100 warm moist washcloths, and burned through all but 5 in a little over an hour. The word, “blessing” recurred frequently, as guests unrolled the washcloth and wiped their faces and their hands. Many asked if they could keep it. Was reminded that Kapporet in Hebrew was understood as the covering of the ark and the Mercy Seat. Kipper or Kippur means either to smear over or to wipe away. (As in sins being wiped away on Yom Kippur.)

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  16. Jeff Conover

    David, I too struggle with the fastfoodification of these traditions but I am working hard to expand my horizons (just like I am working to accept “Alternative Work Options”, or “AWO”, as the new norm). I view this as evangelism and invitation. Perhaps someone that received “ashes on the go” did turn the corner and help someone in need of a meal. Or maybe they were inspired to be stewards in another way. Is this any worse than those that show up for the ritualistic receiving of the ashes and hear the words but fail to live out the meaning? Our actions are the sign of the cross we wear everyday.

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