Ashes to Go: Two Perspectives

Many clergy in the Episcopal Church are offering “Ashes to Go” on street corners and metro stations. There is a lot of debate on this issue so we are presenting two views.  Clergy who opt to offer this should be very clear about why they are doing it. Likewise, clergy who opt not to do it should have a clear understanding of their perspective.

Ashes to Go – An Opportunity for Evangelism?

On Ash Wednesday, clergy around the country choose to stand outside and offer the imposition of ashes to those who desire them. Why? Why do we choose to offer ashes outside of a traditional Ash Wednesday service? Certainly, I do think that attending an Ash Wednesday service is the best way to enter into Lent. Ashes to Go is not an alternative to a service but something different entirely. I sense the Spirit calling us to try new ways of being the Church in our time. Because ashes on Ash Wednesday are familiar to those who may have once gone to church but no longer do, and may also be known to those who have never gone to church, we have a chance to reach people who are not going to go to church on Ash Wednesday. This is about evangelism. When people come up to me for ashes, I ask them if there is anything for which they would like prayer. I often say a prayer with them before imposing the ashes. I also have a simple pamphlet with an explanation of Ash Wednesday and the significances of the ashes and information about our church and our Lenten program. Ashes to Go is not meant to replace an Ash Wednesday service but is one way to reach out. As the Church, we do well to take every opportunity to get outside of our walls to share the good news of God’s love.     
The Rev. Dr. Hilary B. Smith
Rector, Church of the Holy Comforter
Richmond, Virginia

Ashes to Go – A Crucial Ritual without Context?

We inhabit a culture that is on-the-go, twenty-four-seven. It is a fast food world in which quick fixes, immediate results, and speedy turn-arounds are expected. Ours is a transient age, when people change residences frequently and the average job tenure is relatively short. Things seem unstable and ephemeral. I am therefore convinced that the Church needs to proclaim an alternative vision, to proclaim that faith in Jesus Christ and all that it entails is not reducible to a drive-through window or a “to-go” experience. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8).” The stability and constancy of the Gospel is something in which we are called to bask. We are to savor the Word made Flesh in the world, to taste the good news of salvation, and especially, to relish the true meaning of the gift of forgiveness. This is not something easily appreciated in a drive-through window.

Some of the best news that Christianity has to offer is that, because of the promise of salvation offered in the person of Jesus Christ, we are given a lifetime of second chances. But these aren’t fast food second chances. Metanoia and repentance are at the heart of this; second chances also demand something from us. On Ash Wednesday, we recall our mortality and frailty, and yet we also recall our baptism and the promise of a new kind of life not defined by sin. And we experience the move from repentance to forgiveness most fully in the context of the liturgy. In the liturgy we encounter the proclamation of Scripture, confession of sin, and then we move to the hope of salvation and eternal life embodied in the Eucharist’s eschatological banquet. It is in the Ash Wednesday liturgy itself that we fully encounter the good news.

The rituals of Ash Wednesday, like all rituals, find their meaning in context. When the imposition of ashes is snatched up from its deeply rooted liturgical landscape and transplanted to a metro station or street corner, the ashes themselves lose their value as a symbol. The ashes themselves become the implied heart of the message of Ash Wednesday, but they are most definitely not (in fact, the Book of Common Prayer does not even require the imposition of ashes, although this symbol is quite effective). The heart of Ash Wednesday is that despite our human weakness and sinfulness, there is a Being greater than ourselves. There is a salvific power in the announcement of Christ crucified and risen that reminds us that we can always change direction and turn around back to God. But the gift of forgiveness, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested, is not cheap grace. It’s not grace to go. It’s a grace that through its demands on us works wonders for the world. And this good news is found most completely in the liturgy.

My experience has been that most people see offering Ashes to Go as an evangelistic tool, and I admit that good can come out of such a well-meaning and faith-filled gesture of witness. But since the word “evangelism” itself is derived from the Greek word for “good news,” is perhaps our sharing of “good news” best encountered in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday itself? If we assume that people never want to join us in such liturgies, do we assume too much?

And so, what if our evangelistic efforts were directed to invitation? Invitation to share in the experience of the Gospel is more than meeting people on a street corner, shopping mall, or metro station. It is about fostering relationships that are borne out of community and that are probably not most effective in to-go settings. The good news we proclaim is most acutely experienced in the actions, ritual, and shaping of Christian community.

What if we used a powerful symbol like ashes to invite people we don’t know into a deeper exploration of what this symbol means for our faith?

What if churches better equipped parishioners to talk about their faith with other people who may not have a faith tradition, with Ash Wednesday being an opportunity for Christian expression of the good news?

What if we believed that the mystery of Christian liturgy and ritual is actually attractive to people on the fringes? What if we trusted in that and did our best to share a summons into that mystery?

Yes, I believe that the Church can no longer be complacent and assume that people will come to church on their own. People have been turned off from religion for legitimate reasons, and we live in a very different world than that of sixty years ago. Consequently, we must never rest on the laurels of the status quo. But I believe that real, genuine invitation of strangers into Christian ritual demands more of us in the Church than we might like to face. It forces us to give voice to what we believe about our faith in Jesus Christ. It requires that we make an intentional effort to articulate why we come back time and again to the ritual of Christian meaning-making. It demands that we admit that community is central to being Christian. And there, in a community of belonging that eagerly welcomes the stranger, we find our best news to share.                                        

The Rev. Dr. Kyle Babin
Assistant Rector, St. Mark’s Church
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania