Last year I tried to make the case against the liturgical practice of “ashes to go.”
It received a lot of backlash.
And I get it.
But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the community of faith does together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year.
As the popularity of something like Ashes To Go continues to rise, we lose a connection with the communal liturgical practice that sets the stage for the season of Lent.
In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon Ashes To Go has become, 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’s).
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.
Two years ago, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge 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 we are doing it.
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.
This year, the United Methodist Church (the one I serve) is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of a Special General Conference that resulted in doubling down on the so-called “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching, countless members are threatening to leave or withhold their giving, while others are celebrating the exclusion of LGBTQIA individuals from ordination and the ability to be married in a United Methodist Church. I think there is no better time for the church, together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?”
We can be marked with the ashes on our forehead and realize that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – thats basically the message of Lent in a sentence.
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 also live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it our 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.