Monday, February 27, 2012

Ashes to Go

When I first heard about "Ashes to Go" (going out into the streets and other public venues to impose ashes on passers-by) a couple of years ago, I was skeptical. It sounded gimmicky. I wondered about uprooting the practice from the ecology of liturgy and community. I am pretty Christocentric (see here) and ecclesiocentric (see here). Would Ashes to Go play into the tendency to reduce the particularity of Christian faith and practice to a generic spirituality?

In spite of these reservations, upon reflection, I decided to try it last week at a local train station. Why?

1. The imposition of ashes is not a sacrament. I would not do “Eucharist to Go” or “Baptism to Go” (I have written elsewhere about preserving the significance of these sacraments - here). And if you want “Marriage to Go”, you’ll have to go to Las Vegas. With rare exceptions, I only do weddings for members of our congregation. But, the imposition of ashes, rich though the practice is in symbolism, is of a different order. It is an aid to our piety, not a means of grace. This is not about our stewardship of the mysteries. (Note that, according to the Prayer Book, Eucharist is not an essential part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy)

2. In an increasingly secular, unchurched society, we need to find ways to reach beyond the walls of our buildings and find ways to make ourselves visible and available to the needs of those who, for whatever reason, are unlikely to come to us. Obviously, Ashes to Go is not the only way we can do that. But it is a way.

3. The imposition of ashes just might be the ideal practice to bring into the public. The provocative refrain, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” reminds us that all humans are made of the same stuff and we all share the same earthly fate. Ashes to Go is a way to connect the practice of the church to our common humanity and our common fragility, fallibility, and failure.

Of course, Ash Wednesday is about more than our mortality. It is also a call to examination and penance. For sure, Ashes to Go does not explicitly express the fullness of all that. But, it does invite those who might not otherwise do so to contemplate their own dustness, their own need, and wet their appetite for the mercy of God. It reminds them that their time is short. At the very least it invites those who receive the ashes to contemplate the state of the life they are living on the way to their return to dust. I see Ashes to Go as a sort of “pre-evangelism”.

We also handed out brochures that explained who we were and why we were offering the ashes and who we believe is God’s Mercy spoken into our fragility, fallibility, and failure by taking on our dust to save us and transform us into more than dust. One person came back, near tears, and thanked us for the words of the brochure.

So, how did it go?

One of our lay members and I set ourselves up (we had a sign announcing Ashes to Go and who we were) at the train station at about 6:00 AM and stayed until a little after 8:00 AM. Clearly for some we were a curiosity. Some stopped and asked us questions. Between 30 and 40 availed themselves of the ashes. Some who did not still thanked us for being there. One woman asked for a blessing after she received her ashes.

Who received ashes?

1. Christians who are members of churches but were not going to be able to make it to their church’s Ash Wednesday services. One woman said she did plan to go in the evening, but appreciated having the ashes in the morning "as a witness." These folk can be expected to have as "thick" an understanding of the ashes as those who made it to our morning or evening liturgies. Why not offer ashes to such as these as an aid to their beginning a holy Lent?

2. Christians who, for whatever reason, are not currently engaged in a congregation. Some of these were probably lapsed or nominal Christians. These also might be expected to have a relatively informed understanding of the import of the ashes. Why not take the ashes to them pray that the Holy Spirit uses the ashes to rekindle a desire to return to church? Others of these were likely representatives of the ecclesial walking wounded who have been burned by church. Again, these might be expected to know the ashes represent a call to examination and penance. Why not bring the ashes to them and pray that the Holy Spirit uses that as a bridge toward healing?

3. Non-Christians? Though I doubt many of those who came to receive ashes were non-believers, being there at least made them wonder what we were about. And, as I suggest above, even for them, whether they received the ashes or just looked on; hearing "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" invited them to do a little soul-searching. Why not offer the ashes and pray the Holy Spirit to use that to prompt their spirit? Again, pre-evangelism.

All in all, I did not get a sense that anyone was receiving the ashes trivially. No doubt the ideal place to receive ashes is with the gathered community in the full liturgy of Ash Wednesday with the scripture read and expounded, the invitation to a holy Lent, the Litany of Penitence, etc. The fullness of its meaning is best communicated there. Still, given that many will not or will be unable to attend, I am persuaded that it is meet and right to offer folk the opportunity to remember their need and to wet their appetite for more.

And we had a couple of visitors at St. Barnabas on Sunday as a result.

I could be wrong. My reasons for doing so may be inadequate. Some who I respect and with whom I usually agree have raised concerns (see here and here and here). Others have dismissed the idea altogether. On the other hand there is this more appreciative response from one who finds herself ecclessially homeless (see here).

What do you think?


Beverly said...

What a blessing to those who chose to receive the ashes. I am sure your presence also caused many to examine their spiritual lives.
Beverly French (Gunter)

willr said...

Our Rector, Assistant to the Rector and Deacon participated, along with an eclesiatic group of clergy from other denominations. I was not there in person to witness, but heard stories that mirror those you have shared, and know that lives were touched, spirits awakened, and opinions altered. My strong liturgical feelings aside, this was to me a very close approximation of Jesus walking and working among the people that simply cannot be replicated in a liturgy, or dismissed. Very powerful stuff. Thanks for sharing.

Rebecca said...

While a very thoughtful response seems to be in order, the practical side of me prevails -- Sometimes, I just need to be met where I am at -- on the go!

I'm a full-time working mom of two and feel lucky to leave the house each morning with matching shoes on.

"Ashes on the go" sounds perfect!

Matt Gunter said...


It is good to hear from you. I hope you are well. If you ever wantto get in touch you can do so through St. Barnabas.

grace andpeace,


Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, willr.

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Rebecca. You are the kind of person that this is designed to reach.


sydney said...

Matt - nice idea, looks like many people were touched! Post the video on FB and the church website, it's great!

Laura Stokes-Gray said...

I received my ashes at the Ash Wednesday service at St. Barnabas and that's good. I fully support Ashes to Go, however, not only for those who might not be able to get to church - but for those who have fallen away or found themselves in a desert of secularism. It's an ecumenical effort, too, with Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and UCC churches participating. I have no doubt, Matt, that your very presence, with or without the imposition if ashes, had a significant positive effect.