Ashes to go?

Some of our Anglican sisters and brothers have started taking a different approach to Ash Wednesday: they’re taking the ashes out of church and out to meet people where they are.

Although I have some reservations about this idea, I would cautiously approve of it with certain conditions; and I think it’s better than an “ashes only” distribution at church.

The ashes of Ash Wednesday are a sacramental. Unlike a sacrament, which is (say it with me, fellow Catholics) a visible sign of invisible grace, a sacramental is an action or a thing, usually a blessed thing, which is used devotionally and may help to “properly dispose” one to receive the sacraments. Basically, it’s a prayer, made physical.

The ashes are made by burning the blessed palms from last year’s Palm Sunday celebration, and the ashes themselves are blessed before being distributed.

For Catholics (and Anglicans, I believe), ashes are traditionally distributed as part of the mass (do Anglicans call it mass? The complete worship service, I mean, with the eucharist). It’s a sign of penitence for our sins, which we receive after hearing the readings and sermon, as an extra element of the liturgy. It replaces the usual penitential rite. The entire liturgy has a focus on penitence, to open the Lenten season with its traditional practices of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving as a means by which to prove our penitence and improve our relationship with God.

In other words, it’s not just a tradition, like pancakes on Mardi Gras. It’s not just a badge that says “I’m Christian and not ashamed to show it (at least one day a year)”. It cannot be separated from its context of worship without doing damage to its meaning. And this is why I object to an “ashes only” distribution at church.

On the other hand, there’s definitely something to be said for meeting people where they are, for taking this action of the church out into the world and making it available/proclaiming it there.

Here’s my condition, though: I would use the alternate text for the imposition of ashes. Instead of the traditional “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, I would use

Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the gospel.

With this text, “Ashes to go” would speak a prophetic word — a word of challenge, and of invitation — to those who are “unchurched” but still looking towards the church enough to feel drawn to participate in the eponymous rite of Ash Wednesday.

In order for the invitation to work, of course, you’d have to give more details. How about a big sign stating the place and time for church tonight, and for Sunday worship during Lent? Maybe little takeaways with this information: bookmarks are always good. And how about clergy who are available to talk (or, more importantly, listen), as well as those who are giving out ashes? If I hadn’t been to church in years, and was moved to tears by priests bringing the church out to where I was (as described in some of the stories about this), I would want to talk about it, not just get my ashes and go on with my life.

I’d also like to see something in the way of liturgical context. A schola singing a simple setting of Psalm 51 in the background? Or better, a small congregation praying a litany of petition prayers, with the response “Lord have mercy”, so that people could join in. There must be a Taize setting suitable for Ash Wednesday, with an ostinato refrain that everyone could sing. Something to facilitate even momentary participation by passersby would be best. None of these are hard or require a lot of people.

You can see, I think, why I’m cautiously positive about “ashes to go” but remain firmly negative on “ashes-only at church”. The latter is succumbing to the drive-through mentality, and gives out ashes as if they were nothing but stickers that said “I voted today”. The former is, at least potentially, a real meaningful attempt to preach the gospel to the world, out in the world “where cynics talk smut, thieves curse, and soldiers gamble,” as MacLeod put it.

Let us pray for our Anglican and Episcopalian sisters and brothers who are moved to go out into the world with this sacramental on Ash Wednesday; for those who receive those ashes; for the whole church, and for the whole world. Amen.

Have a blessed Lent, everyone.

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