The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

Over the last few years there has been a phenomenal rise in a liturgical practice called “Ashes to Go.” And I think it needs to end.

This is what it typically looks like: On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective local church, and a drive thru line will allow people to wait their turn for a ten second interaction where ashes are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Or a group of clergy will gather in a public space (like a park or fast food restaurant or a coffee shop) with a simple sign encouraging people to stop in for their “Ashes to Go.” Lines will development during peak hours, people will hear the right words, and they will leave with a reminder of their mortality on their foreheads.


Now, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. I understand the difficulties of a frenetic existence where we are habitually running from one thing to the next. Moreover, I know people for whom the “Ashes to Go” is a sign of the church’s willingness to catch up with the times and start digging itself out of its ditch of irrelevancy. But offering ashes devoid of a liturgy in which the practice is made intelligible, is the equivalent of clanging cymbal without love (to steal an expression of Paul).

To those who love “Ashes to Go”: I mean no offense. I only want to call into question the faithfulness and the efficacy of doing so. I have heard about the beauty of meeting people where they are, and the reclaiming of evangelism that happens with “Ashes to Go” but I wonder if there are better occasions to share the gospel without watering down the holiness of Ash Wednesday to fit into other peoples’ schedules.


Last year, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge for an Crackers & Grape Juice episode about Ash Wednesday and she had thoughts on the subject of “Ashes to Go” as well. This is what she said:

“It’s pathetic. I know people who do it (people I admire), but people don’t know why they’re doing it. There’s no message involved. Christianity is not just about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not enough; there has to be rectification of evil… When I grew up nobody had ashes, only the Roman Catholics did it, and we all thought it was superstitious. I personally don’t like the ashes very much unless it is done within the context of an entire worship service with a full and faithful homily. Remember: the gospel says wash your face. It’s really weird to listen to that passage on Ash Wednesday and then leave with a cross on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a full liturgy, Ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the occasion is all about. Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient; that’s kind of the whole point. It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world trying to convince us that we can live forever, and because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of a liturgy in which we can begin to understand what we are doing and why.

And I use the term “we” purposely. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. It is a practice of the community we call church.

While the world bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it out of this life alive, the world is also trying to convince us that we don’t need anyone else to make it through this life at all. According to the world, the individual triumphs. But according to the church, no one can triumph without a community that speaks the truth in love.

Therefore, for me, “Ashes to Go” completely loses its connection with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent because it just becomes another individualized consumer driven model of the church rather than being the incarnational and rooted practice of joining together to remember who we are and whose we are.


8 thoughts on “The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

    • Worse. Though I have provided it for people in the hospital, and in a sense that like taking it to go, but its a different circumstance.

  1. First, I’d say form matters. There are many ways to do “Ashes to Go.” Some involve, as you’ve said, a drive thru line of cars. Others involve a short prayer liturgy. While still missing the communal aspect of an Ash Wednesday service, I’d argue that some forms are more responsible than others.

    I agree with many if not all of the things you said regarding “Ashes to Go.” The imposition of ashes is something that should be done in community within the liturgical context of a service of worship. And yet, my church will offer “Ashes and Prayer” (my own version of Ashes to Go) this year. I serve in a church plant. It’s not always clear to me how United Methodist church plants can distinguish themselves from non-denom plants. There is a gift of being a part of an ecclesial/liturgical church. There is a depth of practice, there is historical theology, there are things we do and things we have that distinguish us in positive ways. And there are times we can highlight that. Ash Wednesday is one of those things and one of those times.

    So I do “Ashes and Prayer” (or “Ashes to Go”) as a form of culture making. As a way of signaling that we have churchy things here. As a way of opening the church and the ancient practices of the church to a wider group of people who otherwise would not even consider going to a traditional Ash Wednesday worship service. Maybe this is the bridge that gets them there?

  2. So I do ashes to go. It’s one of the most uncomfortable days of my year. I stand on the street corner and say “from dust you were created and to dust you shall return” it’s an uncomfortable day for me because I am out of my context. It’s uncomfortable because many judge me as they avoid eye contact, cross the street or just totally avoid me. Each year there are many that say oh great what time is service today, or great I was going to miss services. I am humbled to be set apart as a reminder of the holy temporary lives we lead. I am reminded how much of our world has no idea who we are, what we believe or why we are Christian. The ashes change me, mark me, remind me that the world is our parish.

  3. I guess I’ve always seen the ashes as a way of being in solidarity with other Christians for a day as we’re out in the world. It’s an evangelistic practice as much as a penitential practice. I think people who grew up evangelical like me see every tradition as having the potential to be repurposed for evangelism. At Tulane, we are are offering ashes to students on their way to class and later convening in a central space on campus in the evening for something we’re calling “Out of the Ashes We Rise: Poetry and Testimony of Deliverance.” It’s not a traditional liturgy but it’s a space for publicly rebuking evil and bearing witness to God’s deliverance, which seems to me like a valid form of liturgy for Ash Wednesday. But I’d love to hear your feedback.

  4. one thought… Ashes to Go vs traditional service doesn’t have to be an either-or choice. Receiving Ashes to Go in the morning before work provides a reminder throughout the day that today is Ash Wednesday, and re-orients my thoughts as I am reminded. And in the evening, I attend the traditional Ash Wednesday Service. So for me, Ashes to Go supplements the traditional.

  5. Pingback: Think and Let Think’s Top Ten – 2018 | think and let think

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