The Case Against “Ashes To Go” Revisited

I’m not a fan of “Ashes To Go” and when I wrote about it here on the blog last year it received a lot of backlash.

And I get it.

I understand the desire to take the church outside of its walls to meet people where they are. I understand wanting to keep up with a trendy expression of Christian community. I understand how turning a practice upside down can reinvigorate it for people in an exciting way.

But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the people called church do together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year communally.

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As the popularity of something like “Ashes To Go” continues to rise, we lose a connection with the ecclesial and liturgical practice that sets the stage for the season of Lent.

In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon that “Ashes To Go” has become, it usually looks something like this: 

On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective church and a drive thru line will form such that people in their cars will wait their respective turn for a ten second interaction with ashes that are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

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

To be fair, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. Many of us are running around through the frenetic habits of our lives without time to do much of anything, let alone corporate worship. 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 a clanging cymbal (to steal an expression from 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 loads of stories about the beauty of meeting people in the midst of life and the possibilities of evangelism that can take place 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.

Fleming Rutledge has this to say about the practice:

“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 isn’t 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 id 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 ashes across on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a corporate liturgy, ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the whole thing is about. 

Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient – that’s the whole point.

It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world hell bent on convincing us we’re going to live forever. And, because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of worship in which we can begin to scratch at the surface of what we are doing and why we are doing it.

And I use the word “we” specifically. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. 

It is a practice of the community we call church.

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This year (like most) the United Methodist Church is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of last year’s Special General Conference that resulted in the doubling down of the so-called incompatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching, the denomination is currently debating the values of separating over our differing theologies. Therefore, I think there is no better time for the church, while it’s still together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?”

On Ash Wednesday we have the opportunity (read: privilege) to be marked with ashes as a sign that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – that’s Christian teaching.

This Ash Wednesday can then become a marvelous and miraculous opportunity to discover a new way forward for God’s church.

Outside the fracturing and infighting within the UMC we live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it out of this life alive. And, to make it even worse, 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 terms of the world, the individual reigns supreme. 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. 

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