This Thursday, some students and I will meet to ask the question: "What is Ashes-to-Go and what can we learn from it?" Full disclosure: last year in the space I voiced my reluctance to take on the practice. (I also proposed an alternative practice, public forgiveness seeking, as a possible public response of a church shaped in response to the corporate examination suggested in the Ash Wednesday liturgy.) Even so, I noted at the time that
Ashes-to-Go represents a creative, visible, and - perhaps most significantly - generous posture toward a world that is not used to a Church that is creative, visible, and - most of all - generous.
To my thinking, Ashes-to-Go gets points for creativity, visibility, and generosity. On the level of those three traditional deficits within the Church, it's a win.This year, St Francis House took a step, we hope, toward that visible generosity - holding an abbreviated version of the traditional Ash Wednesday liturgy - 15 to 20 minutes - on a high-traffic pedestrian mall on campus, with a sign inviting others to join our "Prayers for Ash Wednesday." The service stretched me outside of my comfort zone, but also felt like a faithful extension of our community's worship life, which, outside of Sundays, is entirely centered on campus. The first few minutes felt strange, the rest, wholly who we are - students and chaplain circled in prayer, tracing the ashen cross on one another's forehead. Good. Right. True.
Still, interesting questions remain. Why does Ashes-to-Go receive the media coverage it receives? How are secular eyes perceiving this act? The coverage is surprising to me: on the surface, Ashes-to-Go looks a lot like the caricature of Church that the world has long enjoyed despising: the lone preacher on the street corner, proclaiming sin, death, and repentance. Don't get me wrong - I'm thrilled we're not backing down from the hard stuff of the faith, but why is the symbolic embodiment of this old school, hard edge message so popularly received? What can the popularity of Ashes-to-Go teach us about the secular world in which it is offered (and the assumptions we in the Church have made about that world)?
Other questions, too: can/should churches that practice Ashes-to-Go encourage more participation among the laity? One of the possible arguments against Ashes-to-Go - that by its nature it necessarily emphasizes individual repentance over corporate repentance (see the call for the solemn assembly in Joel) - would be softened by an increased invitation to participation among the laity.
In addition to speaking the "repent, sinner" message typically associated with bad caricatures of more evangelical traditions, Ashes-to-Go feels old school in another respect, that until Ashes-to-Go can increase laity participation (entirely possible, with no rubric requiring the priest as the imposer of ashes), the practice seems to reinforce outdated notions of clericalism, otherwise resisted by the secular world.
Again, the Church's rightly recovered emphasis on the Church as the whole People of God feels diminished somewhat by an act that isolates clergy from the Body. Props to clergy who bring lay folks along, but pray for the day that it is the other way around (a la Lay Eucharistic Ministers). Or at least larger teams? The gut-question: in what sense does the practice build up the whole Body? And, how can the practice be developed toward that end?
Finally, in asking "what is Ashes-to-Go and what can we learn from it?", I hope we (Church) can 1) identify other existing activities that could be seen as public proclamations of the Gospel and, always and ever, 2) consider new ones. It seems strange, out of character (and a long-shot) to imagine teams of Episcopalians scattered on street corners with "Let us pray for you." signs. But, then again, after Ashes-to-Go...