“Ash Kicking” or “Why I Don’t Think Ash Wednesday is a Good Day for Peddling Religious Goods”

I know this post might not be popular with many of my colleagues, but it is timely…so I’m going to put it out there.  ashes

I get why pastors and church people stand by the bus stop and the train stop and on busy thoroughfares for Ash Wednesday.  We “get out of the church and into the world” by doing this, right?  We “take the ministry to the streets.”

I get the rationale; I get it.  And I get that it probably can be pretty powerful for the ashers, and possibly the ashees, too.

But here’s my concern, specifically with Ash Wednesday: I fear it is cheap.

Yes, cheap.

Ash Wednesday is a day of solemnity when we hear the prophet Joel encourage people to “return to the Lord.”  The liturgy involves a movement from the Kryie (Lord, have mercy) to hearing Joel’s encouragement to Matthew’s prayerful penitent beat his chest, and then we take last year’s Hosanna’s, burn them as a sign that we’ve burned so much of our praise in pursuit of the dust of this world, and mark ourselves again as dust.

It is a movement of stark realism.  It is a movement, like a carefully put together album, that leads you from the realization of mortality to a hopeful life despite the fact that you are dust.

Beautiful stardust…but dust nonetheless.

But more than anything, it is a movement.  And it takes a bit of time.  Not much time, but some time.  Mortality does not sink in so quickly (without sudden tragedy, of course).  And we should allow the time.  Not much time, but time nonetheless.  As the beginning of Lent, a season of intentionality, it seems odd to me that we would start out with such slack intentionality…

It is much more than a simple smudge at the bus stop.  Sure, there are many who will also offer prayer in that time.  Sure, there are many who will also offer information about how the individual seeking to be “ashed” (or get the “ash kicking” as I like to say) can hook up with a faith community.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it.

I’m just saying why I’m not going to…and I want to ask the question publicly.

Because despite the prayer and the information on faith communities, I don’t think Ash Wednesday is the day to do it.

We don’t see people out on Easter passing out lilies.  Actually, that makes a ton more sense to me…

I don’t want Ash Wednesday…I don’t want my mortality…to be a gimmick.  And I worry that the church can turn it into that.

And there’s something important about having Ash Wednesday with other people of faith, all together, in one place.  There’s something important about me, the individual hearing “Memento, homo, quod pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris” but then also having all of us, communally, hear it.

It’s not just about me; it’s about us.  All of us.  We are all stardust…and our systems of power and “isms” and phobias have reinforced it.

And there is something powerful about having a train full of cross-smudged commuters.  I won’t deny that.  But what does it mean that they got it running for the 8:05am?

Have an early morning Ash Wednesday service.  Or a noon one, where people can do it at lunch hour.  Or, have a full one at the bus stop, 20 minutes long.  Or point people toward a service that happens right as work gets out downtown.  I think these are good options.  But not as they’re running by…

Because I want to know: what do we think we’re saying when we’re offering a reminder of mortality on the fly?

19 thoughts on ““Ash Kicking” or “Why I Don’t Think Ash Wednesday is a Good Day for Peddling Religious Goods”

  1. I’ve never thought about it this way (the purpose of your post, right?). Rather, I’ve been impressed with those willing to go outside the church walls to offer the rite. You post, however, made me think about the part of the Ash Wednesday service that most affects me, which is the communality you mention. The line of folks returning from communion, all bearing marks of mortality. Every time it happens, I understand anew: we are all in this together.

  2. Pastor Tim,
    I personally struggle with the line between knowledge and faith (that is given by the Spirit). Though the particular issue of offering ashes at bus stops has never come up (I live in the South. The Baptists, Church of Christ, etc. would probably think we were some sort of cult. :), this type of “effort” often does.
    How DO we “share” faith? I don’t think WE do. Then, why IS our knowledge (the meaning behind the ashes) relevant? (I know it is. I just don’t know why.) Can the Spirit use an “ash experience” to fill someone? Yes. Does the Spirit need ashes to fill someone? No. So, what is the point?
    For me, personally, it’s a spiritual event, BUT it’s based on my knowledge. Does someone NEED that knowledge? No. Does that knowledge impact me? Yes. What does that knowledge actually have to do with my faith? I’m not sure.
    I know that love is central in the message of Christ. I know that faith comes from God and His love for us. I know that we are to show love to everyone. How does that love translate in terms of “ministry”? Is love sharing something that I “know” or is it simply being whatever someone needs (a friend, a meal, clothing, etc.)?
    It’s a common understanding, I think, that we “love people where they are” and then use that “opportunity” to “share” the message of Christ. If I understand you correctly, that’s what you’re saying. It seems like you’re saying “Don’t give them ashes, unless you tell them what it means.” Why? (I’d also ask, “why even give them ashes?”.) If faith is the work of the Spirit, alone, why do we need to share any “religious” message? Why not hand out doughnuts, just to be nice? (I’m not really suggesting handing out doughnuts at a bus stop. It’s just a contrasting gesture.) Do we need to “share” knowledge? (Obviously, I’m assuming that the imposition of ashes at a bus stop would be to “share” the message of Christ.)
    I don’t know the answers to these questions. I know that nothing I can do creates faith, but I treasure the knowledge that I have. Does everyone need that knowledge? Does everyone want that knowledge? I feel like we underestimate God’s power to simplify Him to mere “understanding” and knowledge.
    PS- You blog has “kindled fires” in me that raise these questions. I am intrigued that you almost seem to be on a different “side” in this post.
    Thanks again for your ministry!

    • Hey Beth,

      No side differences 🙂 These questions are exactly the ones I’m trying to raise…

      I’m not saying “Don’t give them ashes unless you tell them what it means,” I’m more saying “Don’t abstract the ashes from the larger movement.”

      I worry, especially in this case, that the ashes become the ‘event’ instead of the communal (and individual) awareness that comes from the whole movement. In that way, I worry that it can become cheap.

      I think that there are good arguments for doing this on the street, and I hope I present a good argument for not doing it there (specific to this ritual).

      But, of course, differing perspectives are welcome. What I’m not trying to say is that Jesus can only be found in church. What I am trying to say is that not everything done in a church translates in two minutes to the streets.

  3. I’m sure Ashing in the context of formal liturgy is to be preferred.

    Just as to receive a palm cross in the context of Palm Sunday liturgy is preferable.

    However, it is still good to receive a palm cross even if one was not at the liturgy… Similarly ashing ‘lite’ seems better than no ashing at all.

    “what do we think we’re saying when we’re offering a reminder of mortality on the fly?” What about ‘remember in your busyness that you are dust ….’ In the midst of life we are in death’…

    • Thanks for commenting. I think there are arguments for both sides.

      I do hope that people, in their busyness, remember they are dust.

      But I’m not finding people want less ritual, less meaning from the church…”fly by” meaning. I’m finding they want more.

  4. On Ash Wednesday many congregations read the following from Matthew 6: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

    There is such a strong instinct among Christians to preach their faith, that many lose track of nurturing it within themselves. And in this passage from Matthew, Jesus goes even further to say true believers must even challenge in themselves where that instinct is coming from, and learn when it is or isn’t appropriate.

    I grew up before this more recent show of ashes became popular over the past 25 years and I have never liked it. I’ve worked in churches where people come in before 8 a.m., skip lunch, or work over time just to get in a line to get ashes on their heads, like from an ATM, without even listening to the scriptures, or taking a seat for a minute, or noticing another smudged forehead around them.

    It’s not just hollow in the way Jesus describes in Matthew. It’s hollow becomes so many don’t know any better. It’s expected. It’s ritual. It’s “tradition.” It’s duty. There will probably someday be theological treatises written about what Jesus “meant to say” about wearing ashes at the bus station.

    I like what you have written here and wonder how many other ministers will pause to challenge the current accepted practices of Ash Wednesday and shift gears, helping their congregations to let the day be about their own reflection and renewal, and to hear the true meaning of Jesus words for themselves.

    • A great book I’m sure. I love Miles.

      There are good points to any side of this issue, but we must talk about it, yes?

      And the power spiritual implications for the individual can and should be paired with the overall message conveyed.

  5. Yes….and I go one step further. According to Matthew (what we read every Ash Wednesday) Jesus aupposedly said “Don’t.”….yet we do. My take is Ash Wednesday and Lent need to be rethought.

  6. St. Paul’s Parish, K Street, Washington DC, a fairly traditional Anglo-Catholic parish, risked it, was nervous about it, and had a transformative experience amidst many I’m sure for passersby, standing at Foggy Bottom Metro with Bishop Budde. With thurible going, ash-impositioners in copes, and a welcome table with information on the church as well as invitations to the full liturgy later that evening, it was one of the best both/ands I’ve experienced/heard about (in the Ashes to go phenomenon.) I don’t know that that is a parish on whom charges of cheapening or making things to easy or consumeristic would stick…

    I’d wager good money that only the tiniest percentage of people might not go to a full liturgy because of “getting” to receive it “on-the-go.” I’d be most who receive would not otherwise, and do not get invited to go to a service, because apparently we don’t do that. If we did, maybe we wouldn’t need to be doing this.

    I do think the name “Ashes-on-the-Go” is tres tacky and probably a source of the negative perception that exists.

    Can’t we just call it evangelism? In the context of Ash Wednesday? It’s basically the Anglican version of “The End is Near.”

    • Thanks for the comment, and thanks for reading.

      I do think there are good reasons to do it, and as I mention, I’m certain it can be powerful in some ways. I just worry that it’s too gimmicky in others with a very serious topic.


  7. Dear Pastor Brown,

    I often read your posts and, while I enjoy your style of writing tremendously (a definite gift!), I find myself disagreeing with you more times than not. I find this post, however, to be “right on the money,” and I thank you for it. It reminds me exactly of the premise of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work, “The Cost of Discipleship.” In Chapter 1, “Costly Grace,” Bonhoeffer writes,

    “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace.
    Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sins, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, it that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using it and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap? . . . ”

    The strong symbolism of the ashes in the shape of the Cross, in my estimation, is the sign not only of our mortality but of costly grace. As such it certainly deserves more consideration than a “drive through/walk by reminder” — regardless of how much we surround it with bells or smoke (which I love, by the way)! With Christ’s help and for His sake, may we, the Church, continue to find ways to lift up costly grace.

    Pax Christi,

    Rev. Troy G. Waite

    • Thanks for the note, Reverend.

      And thanks for reading despite often disagreeing. May we all read, and listen, different perspectives. Only then do we find common ground.

      Like today.

  8. I rode on that early train into NYC for years, with a carful of snoring commuters, and back at night, dead tired and too late to make a 7 pm service. If MetroNorth would let me, I’d have a chapel car on the train, but all they’ll let us do is stand back from the platform and offer ashes. So we’ve printed up a postcard with the brief prayer we’ll use with each person (no runners, please!) and more Lenten prayers on the back, and our contact info. If it makes one person stop…

    • And I pray your work is blessed.

      It really is a topic for conversation. Is Ash Wednesday about ashes? Is it about repentance and penitence? Is it about communal repentance? Individual? All of these things…

      And then, how do we best say these things?

  9. Thank You for your post. For years I thought I was the only one who thought this didn’t make Liturgical sense. We’re doing exactly what scripture tells us we shouldn’t be doing. Would not our lives be better if we took the time we spent in a service to sit quietly and meditate on our lives and where the Spirit is calling us? I’ve also questioned the Lenten practice of Fasting from before I entered Church Ministry. What do we gain by giving up chocolate or coffee, especially if it turns us into irritable emotional time bombs? Would not we, and in fact the whole of creation, benefit more if we fasted from the things which prevent us from being more Christ-like? And if we did not return to those actions after our fasting, would we not rise as a new creation on Easter?

  10. Pingback: Monday March 3rd | public theology

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