Monday, February 11, 2013

Ashes to Stay

Everett Lees, the priest at Christ Church Tulsa, has a great blog post about Ashes to Go.  For those who don't know, Ashes to Go is all the rage in The Episcopal Church.  A priest will go out into the public square (train station, etc.) on Ash Wednesday and offer ashes, with the traditional words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  People who don't have time to go to church that morning - or who forgot it was Ash Wednesday, or who have no idea what Ash Wednesday even is - have the chance to get their ashes and experience a holy moment.

Everett disagrees with the concept of Ashes to Go, and I agree with Everett.  Go and read his blog post - I'll wait.  

And now that you've read what Everett has to say, here's what I want to add.  Taking the gospel to the streets is a great thing, and I applaud it, and I appreciate what those who do Ashes to Go are doing, and their reasons for doing it.  I just don't agree with it.  

I love Everett's ideas for how to take the gospel out into the world, such as foot-washing to go, healing to go, etc.  I can imagine me, back in the old days, having forgotten my Christian upbringing in the hustle and bustle of my business career, being touched by God in an unexpected way during my morning commute or whatever, and feeling grateful.  

But Ash Wednesday?  Surely there are more enlightening ways to touch people with God's grace.  Leaving aside the facts Everett points out - that this quick "ashing" comes without repentance, and directly countermands what Jesus tells us to do in the Ash Wednesday gospel - that is, don't wear your piety on your forehead for all to see and congratulate, but practice it quietly - there are other problems.  After all, what is the most immediate experience of getting "ashed"?  It is a reminder of our mortality:  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Really?  If we are going to touch a person with the Christian message once in an entire year, that's how we want to do it?  With a reminder of our mortality?    

Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite holy days of the year.  But Ash Wednesday makes sense only at the beginning of a season that ends with Easter.  Lent begins with a reminder of our mortality, the dust that our bodies will become, but it ends with a tomb that is not dusty, but empty.  We Christians are not death people - we are resurrection people.  We are people who proclaim that God loves us, forgives us, and desires that we should cast off our sins and live.  

Let's take the Easter message to the streets.  Let's repent of our sins and acknowledge our mortality, surrounded by the love of a church community.  And then let's proclaim resurrection from the housetops, to go.  "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."


  1. Thank you both for articulating my discomfort with the whole thing! Every time I say something critical about Ashes to Go people jerk their necks around and start to cluck as if I have criticized their mom's favorite recipe. I cannot understand why we want to lead with the bogus appearance of repentance. "Healing to go," "confession to go" or "drive through prayer" are much better. Btw, we have done "communion to go," I made a snarky post about it a couple of weeks ago on :-)

  2. Thank you, Susan. I am so glad we agree on this. I thought it was just me, being a Boomer in serious risk of becoming a curmudgeon. Actually, it's not about me. Or, you. Or, what we think. It's all about repentance. I don't think Ashes To Go can possibly do justice to the prophetic calls of Joel or Jesus. Thanks for articulating that so clearly.

  3. Thank you! I am so glad that in México where I serve, this would be impossible on several levels and offensive on many more. And I've rarely seen clergy in photos that did not include a sign that named their church, complete with address and phone number. Let's be honest; we're also trying to get people to come to our collection plates. I, too, thought I was the only one, and not just looking at the "phenomenon" through the eyes of another culture. Perhaps it would be better to preach Jesus and Joel on the street and then tell folks where (in a church) they might begin their repentance with a visible sign on their forehead and food for the journey they're undertaking. Hilary West, Querétaro, México

  4. Thanks, Susan, for looking at this. I feel totally committed to being in the community instead of hiding out in church, but this has never quite felt like a good idea. The cynic in me thinks it's mostly about letting lapsed Roman Catholics feel less guilty and introduce them to the Episcopal church (which is not a bad church growth strategy in this part of the country, but still...). Much better are your other ideas. As an aside, it also seems odd to me to go into a mall in cassock and surplus and tippet to do something like this.

  5. Thank you Susan and all who have placed their thoughtful and faithful comments in this thread. Your reasoning and theology are all sound. Having said that, I'm going to agree to disagree agreeably, at least as far as my witness goes.

    I believe that there is something graceful and honest about taking this piece of the Gospel message to the streets. Your invocation of Matthew 6 in the practice of piety is well taken, but there is the caveat there, 'so as to be seen by others." Perhaps this is selective exegesis, but I don't take Ashes to Go to be seen by others but to remind folks of their mortality and the fact that the Gospel message matters in our mortal lives. Basically we can be faithful to the message of resurrection as we remind folks that dying is a prerequisite both figuratively and literally.

    I would add to this an appeal to Luke 18:8ff. I like to believe that wearing a sign of my imperfection is not an appeal to attained righteousness, but a witness to the promise of forgiveness to the cross with the temerity to claim it as the pathway to resurrection. For me, this is reason enough for making this public witness and service.

    I'd like to think that what we are wrangling over (and I think that wrangling is good) is what constitutes a complete rendering of the Gospel message. Perhaps this is both/and not either or.

    As for doing justice to Joel or Jesus, as Elizabeth points out, it starts somewhere. Hearing the prophetic call can happen in and instant, but it takes a lifetime to live out.

    Hilary, I'm sure that you're right about some, maybe most, as seeing this as a way in to 'bump up the plate'. I'm also confident in my reflection and prayer about this, that it needn't be the case. Sometimes witness is just being there and standing up.

    Finally, I will do this again because I remember the response of a West African immigrant domestic as one of my friends imposed ashes on her as she was off to Boston to work as an office cleaner, "thank You Jesus for meeting me on my way today. Bless you."

    Finally, I see it as a faithful call to the stirring of the spirit in my heart as the season of Lent opens before us. To that end I'll end with the Anglican view of the rite of the Reconciliation of a Penitent. One of my friends summarized it this way, "All may, some should, none must."

    I feel that I should continue to do this as a response to the movement of the Holy Spirit in my heart. I hope that you all will do likewise in whatever way the Spirit moves you.

    A Holy Lent to one and all

    1. And, yes, I know I "Finally-ed" twice.

      Be well all y'all!!!

      "The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days."-Ray Wylie Hubbard from 'Mother Blues' off 'The Grifter's Hymnal' album.

  6. Thanks to all for your thoughtful comments. Fr. Warren - I can certainly see the good side of doing this, and it is not without regret that I have chosen not to do it myself. I love your story of the woman thanking Jesus for meeting her that morning. But I should clarify one thing - you mentioned the call of Matthew 6 not to practice our piety "so as to be seen by others," and said that this is not the reason you do it. I absolutely believe you and honor you for doing it to proclaim the gospel. My concern is not for the ministers giving out ashes to go - I understand that this is a courageous act. My concern is for those who are receiving ashes without true repentance, then going off to work or daily activities with ashes emblazoned across their foreheads. Surely many are displaying piety without actually experiencing it? Surely, as Adam points out, many are lapsed Roman Catholics who are then able to look un-lapsed? I agree with Adam that appealing to lapsed Roman Catholics is an excellent church growth strategy, but I wonder about the integrity of the rite. Ash Wednesday is such a complex service, with so many interwoven themes, which all work together to bring hope and reconciliation in the midst of death and repentance, that I'm not sure how to bring it together in a way that feels hopeful and faithful to me. Again, I honor you for what you are doing and experiencing - I'm just saying that this is a very gray area to me, and this is how I have had to decide to act. Not without regret, because the idea of taking it to the streets is so compelling.

    Blessings and thanks for the comments,

  7. I agree with you. "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" is actually some really bad news outside the context of the Gospel - and "seekers," by definition, are outside that context. They don't have a religious community on which to lean, or from which to learn. Like you, I love Ash Wednesday - but it's an acquired taste, and to me, one that needs the full liturgical treatment surrounding the ashing rite.

    I do love the idea of "healing to go," though! Anointing with oils for healing, and prayer - these things are actually "Good News"!

  8. I posted this to Everett's blog as well and I will probably give a more extended blog post on this later today but I wanted to voice a mild disagreement with this.

    To start off I would like to say that Everett's suggestions of healing to go and foot washing to go are great ideas either way and that this is not an either or.

    That being said this is where I come at this. Every morning at 8:00 AM I hop on the el in Chicago with everyone else in this city. We leave our children behind. We leave our spouses and signifigant others behind. . Frequently we do this in an extremely agitated state because we JUST HAVE TO GET THERE! I mean if I don't there's a nonexistent chance that the companies we work for won't recieve the revenue that is due to them! WE ARE IMPORTANT PEOPLE!

    As we go we walk past people living at a subsistence level. They ask us for change. Sometime we give them something. Most of the time we dont because they simply cant be trusted with the 50 cents I might give them.

    In the context of this in one of the worlds largest financial centers let me suggest that we would do well to occasionally remember that we are from dust and to dust we shall return. Maybe we will think a little longer about whether or not we could spend a few more minutes with our children. Maybe we will think about that fight we had with our loved one. Hell, maybe we'll remember to have a decent breakfast every now and then. One way or another its a good thing to remember.

    1. Very interesting and thoughtful point, Glenn, thank you.

  9. From the point of view of evolutionary theology, I appreciate a new take on ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’.

    This image of dust is of ‘star dust’….of the primordial dust of the big bang…of the earliest moments of creation. The atoms and elements of that ongoing moment of God’s love are still today constituent of my body, our bodies.

    In remembering, then, that we are dust, we;re invited to remember, reexperience, not only our very deep connection within that persisting moment but also our connection with all of creation that participates in the same source.

  10. A couple of my parishioners and I participated in Ashes to Go today. I hear your concerns and agree to some extent. We could debate what Jesus said and what he meant in today's Gospel lesson, but what would it profit? The thing that I experienced most today was the overwhelming humility of putting ashes on strangers' foreheads, reciting to them the ancient line, and letting them know that, while the ashes remind us of our origins and our destiny in dust, we place them on you in the sign of the cross, which carries the promise that death is not the end of the story. We were greeted with tears. Was there repentance in the hearts of those who heard our words? I don't know. I'm not the Holy Spirit. My job was to go out and spread the good news. I'll leave it to God to sort out the rest.