In Defense of “Ashes to Go”

“Just another thought-less fad”

“A shining example of cheap grace”

“A publicity stunt”

“What’s next? Communion-to-go?”

This will be the third year that I have been a part of a ministry referred to as Ashes-to-Go that invites Christians to take their faith and practice it out in the public square. I have experienced it as a powerful invitation to enter into Lent.

What is Lent?

The 40 days that we prepare for Easter that is patterned after Jesus’ time of fasting and prayer in the desert in preparation for his public ministry. It serves today as an opportunity to examine our lives, to give up behaviors that might prevent us from closeness with God, to take on practices that help us to refocus our attention on the Holy.

Why Ashes?

We are marked by ashes with the sign of the cross on this day to be reminded that we are mortal – that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return. This remembrance can draw us into deeper relationship with God. The Jewish practice of putting on ashes and sackcloth was a sign of repentance and is referenced in a variety of places in scripture.

I remember talking with great excitement before a group of clergy in the diocese sharing my experience of offering the imposition of ashes at light rail stops and a coffee shop in Timonium three years ago and the way in which I felt transformed by it: conversations with many passersby about the meaning of Lent and what it might mean for them this year, prayers with people who were sick or who had loved ones who were, deep dialogue with people who had been horribly hurt by the church in the past, the kind man who after driving away from the light rail parking lot returned 10 minutes later with several hand warmer packets to help me fend off the cold, the moment in which I stepped back and saw three separate conversations taking place on the light rail platform all about God and where the practice of our faith really touches our lives and wondered when was the last time I heard such eagerness, such hunger, such connection in conversations at coffee hour. These were only a few of those sacred sightings we’ve witnessed in the last three years.

Of course, there was a comment or two like “If I do this now, does it count? Does this mean I don’t have to go to church later?” For those few, perhaps the experience was lost.  But for the many, God was about getting people’s attention, drawing them closer, slowing them down, enabling them to turn inward, even if for a moment. God was about letting people know that they were seen and loved by God, that the body of Christ cared enough to come to them.

Gone are the days of just waiting – waiting behind the closed doors of our church buildings just hoping someone might show up. Yes, we must continue to offer liturgy in our church buildings, but must we confine the “work of the people” to our sanctuaries? Can we not also discover fresh expressions of how God is calling the church to resurrection and new life today and tomorrow? Can we not become the living, breathing, walking, talking, loving body of Christ for a world that is in such desperate need that it often does not even realize it?

Jesus preached and teached and healed in synagogues (not church buildings by the way). He also was said to do the same and much, much more everywhere he went, feeding multitudes of the hungry, preaching from mount, plain, riverbank, and city corner, healing those whom he met half way, not waiting behind the barriers of the temple, but going out to meet his people where they were, even walking on water and climbing that hill with his cross.

Sure, taking ashes out to share with our communities cannot even begin to compare with the impact that Jesus’ life and ministry had and still has on the world. In my own Anglican tradition, I remember being captivated by the history of the so-called ritualist slum priests in the Oxford Movement in England who brought the richness of the liturgy into places where poverty had its strongest hold (incense and all).  But they did not stop with worship. That prayer led to acts of mercy and cries for justice. That liturgy led to further action and efforts to transform the world.

To the naysayers of such Ashes-to-Go practices, I want to say thank you. Because the reality is that far too few of us think about our faith and how and why we practice it. By rejecting the practice of Ashes-to-go and writing thoughtful reflections on why you find it troubling, you are creating opportunity for all of us to ponder these things in our hearts. The question is whether anyone will read it. Does anyone care? Is anyone paying attention? Both the written word and spoken word have power, but only if they are seen and heard. Who experiences this word if it is only shared in the confines of our church buildings, behind closed doors, like the disciples gathered in fear and trembling after the death of Jesus? We too can wait in anxiety while the church as we know it dies, clinging to what we once had, waiting for Jesus to come again. Or we can go out to the highways and hedgeways, seeking Christ, looking for a glimpse in the face of every person who passes by. We can reach out in love to each other and discover that the Kingdom of God is right here before our very eyes: on our way rushing to work on the bus or train, as the door swings open at our favorite coffee house, in the parking lot as we toss groceries in the trunk, at the long red light we wait for every morning, wherever we go.

I began this reflection by describing an instance of sharing our public imposition of ashes experience with some clergy. I remember one excited comment from a colleague wanting to join in this effort the following Lent – 364 days away. My response was, why wait? We should be asking what we can do now. What about powerful sacramental acts like anointing and the laying on of hands or foot washing?  The hands of Christ reach through the church to touch those who need God’s love. That includes all of us – touching others’ lives and being touched ourselves. How are you being called to make yourself available as a vehicle through which God’s love, reconciliation, and healing can flow?