This Ash Wednesday, I can’t do ‘Ashes to Go’ or ‘#Ashtag’

ashtag-selfie-ashwed-churchmojo-squareThis morning a blogger and writer that I like to read and whom I respect, David R Henson, posted an insightful blog post about the problems with #AshTag.

As I prepare for Ash Wednesday, my own thoughts have been swirling around how to approach and understand this first day of Lent. As David considered the problem of Ash Wednesday selfies posted to social media using the hashtag #AshTag, one line in particular caught my attention.

The systemic push within the church for Ash Wednesday selfies is an exercise in whistling past graveyards.

Needless to say, I won’t be posting an Ash Wednesday selfie (one would think that Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras would be the big selfie night).

AshestoGo4But another Ash Wednesday innovation that I have surprised myself by not being terribly interested in is ‘Ashes to Go.’ Ashes to go is where clergy go out to street corners and subway platforms to offer ashes to those passing by. Often clergy do this in full vestments.

I am all for getting out in the world. I totally agree that churches need to look beyond themselves for ways to connect with the world around them (see my last post). And I would never claim that the intentions behind these two practices(?) are not well-intentioned. Nor would I say that Ashes to Go, in particular, doesn’t produce some amazingly powerful encounters between clergy and folks about town.

But there is just something missing for me.

Again David Henson makes the point:

“The whole world saw Christians standing on the virtual street corner praying and making their fasts public spectacles. We did the exact thing the Gospel for the day asked us not to.”

For me, Ash Wednesday has a deeper context.

A few years ago, during a shared Ash Wednesday service with another congregation, I got to watch a good friend and colleague place ashes on the forehead of his six-year-old son. It was a powerful moment for this parent to have to declare to his own son, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This year, I will put ashes on my own infant son’s forehead and speak those words.

And over the past 6 years of ministry, I have scattered ashes and sand on many caskets. I have uttered the words “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” over the bodies of those who have died of painful, fast-acting cancer, over murder victims, over those who have taken their own life, over children, over those who have suffered for years with diseases like Parkinson’s or MS. The ashes are real in these moments, they aren’t just symbolic.

For me, the ashes are not to be taken lightly.

For me, the ashes are a reminder of my own tenuous mortality.

For me, the ashes cannot be separated from confession, from Gospel, from Eucharist.

For me, the ashes are not mine to give, but it is the church’s job, our job to receive them.

This is not to say that I would refuse anyone ashes tomorrow night. I wouldn’t.

But Ash Wednesday is the church’s chance to confess, to admit our failures, to declare that we are dead, that our bodies, blood, sweat and tears – that even our buildings and budgets –  will all be ash one day.

And I cannot deliver that message in 30 seconds on a street corner.

Perhaps, I could stand on a street corner in full vestments make confession to strangers and ask passersby to put ashes on my forehead. Maybe ‘Ashes to Go’ would make sense to me then.

But more importantly, I can’t leave Ash Wednesday at the ashes. I can’t just stop at the part where I am dead. I have to hear the Good News. I have to hear that God makes me alive. That God makes us alive.

And as a preacher, I need to preach that news too. I need to invite the Ashen Assembly to the table of the Lord, to receive the bread and wine that makes our dry bones and ashes come to life.

To me, smiling goofily into my smart phone for an #AshTag selfie, or standing on a street corner in my vestments handing out fast food ashes has missed an important part of Ash Wednesday.

The reality that we are really dead, like body-in-a-casket-being-lowered-into-a-grave dead.

And the reality that only God can make us alive.

The thing is, we need Ash Wednesday, all of it.

And the ashes aren’t really the point.


What is Ash Wednesday for you? Have you received Ashes to Go or have you #AshTag-ed? What was your experience? Share in the comments, or one the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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86 thoughts on “This Ash Wednesday, I can’t do ‘Ashes to Go’ or ‘#Ashtag’”

  1. I was told that a local church is sending its priests to the street to do drive by ash schmearing. I immediately thought of the drive thru wedding chapels in Vegas. How the sanctity of these covenants are being treated almost as an inconvenience and the church is accommodating people too busy to be still.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Not to mention the message we are sending as clergy. I think the experience of ashes is meant to be one of mutual confession. It only half the story for me to stand on a street corner and tell people they are dead. Neither party has fully engaged the moment.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I am not Catholic, so I don’t participate in Ash Wednesday, but my husband and I saw a sign for “Ashes to Ho” and were discussing how we thought people may feel about this. Thank you for enlightening me and for helping me understand the significance of the practice.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. You know, I haven’t thought about Ash Wednesday since my days in Catholic school since I no longer identify, but I found this quite interesting. I think that the #AshTag is truly the nail in the coffin as a sign of our times. We are so fully entrenched in social media that even are deep sacred moments are being reduced to little more that bite sized entertainment pieces.

    I actually don’t mind the Ashes to Go idea. Especially in large cities where people are so busy that they may not get a chance to visit a church they got an opportunity for at least a moments reflection, which is better than none. So long as the clergy aren’t being super PUSHY about it then I say, why not? *shrug*

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Essentially its symbolism and it is used to represent ideas. It does not matter if you find it uncomfortable. You should be content that there is still enough belief for you to carry it out. Only in my opinion. I enjoyed the article however.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I read your Ash Wednesday blog last night but it was too late to comment. I “liked” the post and totally agreed with you about the deeper spiritual context of Ash Wednesday.
    After an entire lifetime of serving God in another Christian community, I celebrated my first Ash Wednesday several years ago at age 50 as part of my RCIA training. Preparing for this day was one of our homework assignments and I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew about it, but really did not understand it. It was very beautiful and personal and just the beginning of the spiritual connectedness of the season which remains true each year for me.
    I also agree about the role of outreach to those who wouldn’t ordinarily walk through the church doors but I confess that the drive-by chapels were first in my mind as well. I was not aware of the practice of “Ash & Go” until I read your blog. I’d like to believe though,that the folks who come up on the street corner for their Ashes are indeed seeking a spiritual connection. Wherever they are spiritually, in their own way, they are publically taking a step toward reconciliation.
    As for “Selfies”, they are part of our culture. As a youth leader, back in the day, I remember wanting to share with my peers that besides fun and games, I was a spiritual being. Throughout the years I’d counseled many teens struggling with faith in the modern world. I have not seen any selfies of real people coming out of church with their ashes but like we posted “I voted” to encourage others, why not let others know that there is no shame in believing. Thanks for your post and thanks for serving.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I’m very torn on ‘Ashes To Go’. It seems like a good idea but maybe it takes away from the seriousness of Ash Wednesday. Wow, I really need to think about this one. Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I agree wholeheartedly — go big or go home. Take in the full meaning of the Mass and Ash Wednesday (and your mortality), and let it sink in. Ashes to go ……. what next, palms? Ash Wednesday has a few meanings for me. One, of course, is our short time on earth and what we choose to do with it. The other is the physical marking of my Christianity. Although the Gospel teaches to do good deeds in private and God will notice, the visible marking of one’s forehead let’s the world know I’m a Christian, and comfortable with it. With the recent assault on Christians throughout Africa and the Middle East, it takes faith to another level. And I leave you with this: how many of us, if our towns and cities were controlled by ISIS, would wear our ashes in public and risk certain death. This past Wednesday when I received my ashes, I could only think of those 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians beheaded for their belief in Christ. I said a prayer for their souls, and marveled at the strength and courage of their faith.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I appreciate the elucidation of this struggle. Where do we draw the line between bringing our spirituality into the public eye on the one hand, and not letting the other hand know what we are doing when we withdraw into our prayer closet and privacy? Does blogging about our fasting during Lent draw attention to ourselves? when do we end the feeding of our pride?
    I think this is measured in our hearts, between us and the almighty. Perhaps these celebrities (Hollywood and otherwise) are bringing glory to the Lord in their demonstration of faith. I’m not inclined to think so, and I fully identify with the distaste around mixing mourning/fasting and social media frivolity. But I wonder if we need to judge our own hearts before we judge theirs.
    This said, I need that reminder to eschew comfort and convenience for the suffering and Joy of the Lord, found in meditation, quiet, peace, and for me, the separation from the digital world.
    May the Grace and Peace of our Lord be with you during this fast.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Fantastic thoughts. I was raised aggressively Catholic (not any more, long story), and I’m also smarter than a four-slice toaster, so I understand the importance of the symbolism. To me it always seemed the role of the ashes was a reminder, a constant meditation, for a day, on the impermanence of life and the need to always and everywhere be right with yourself and God. It’s supposed to be, in many ways, a dark and introspective day. I wholeheartedly agree that both #AshTag and Ashes to Go cheapen this. Tagging selfies or snagging ashes from a corner just makes a person THINK they have done something meaningful, while removing the important part of the act from the equation. The ashes are an outward sign; the important part is reflecting as you enter Lent, a time of atonement prior to the biggest celebration of the year.

    Good post.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Thank you for your virtual ashes. I had to work and being an Episcopalian who also gets the ashes, like catholics and Lutherans miss the smear on my forehead. I guess the cyber cross must do in such a world as ours.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Really interesting and inspiring. I hope more clergymen would start thinking the same as you. It is important to understand the changes that are happening in the world, and respond to the necessities of our fellow men. As for myself, I have been dealing with new technologies – and this is something we all have to deal with to a certain extent.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I’d never heard of ashes to go. I seriously applaud the creativity, but it doesn’t sit well with me. I feel like separating the symbol from the meaning behind the symbol cheapens it. And while I believe our personal relationship with God is what matters most to the big man, I think he created us to be in community with one another too. Offering ashes to go gives weight to the false idea that we can “do faith” just as well on our own as we can as part of the body.

    I think you may like my last post… please stop on by!

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I must confess I didn`t even know what Ash Wednesday was! It seems like I have a lot to learn. Thank you for this post, it reminds me how special this world is, and that we must respect situations that are important for so many.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. This was my third year offering “ashes to go” as a priest in Edmonton. I would definitely encourage the practice for any who are considering it.

    I stand silently and prayerfully with another priest in our purple stoles and folks approach, some clearly knowing the movements, others with questions, others with shyness or trepidation. We have a little write up about ash Wednesday with a litany that we hand out after our moment (second) of prayer.

    I have very few, if any, just pick up their ashes as blithely as they do the free paper that’s being handed out alongside us. It is clearly an invitation to a moment of prayer, this very moment, that is seized by those who have at least some echo of the rite and it’s meaning or those who are desperate for a peace the world cannot give. For some ashes on the corner are a taste of it or help them look for it in Christ.

    I wrote a bit able my experience this year at gatheringcoals.ca

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment Nick. As I pointed out in my article, I am certainly not questioning the intentions of Ashes to Go, nor the legitimacy of experience. What I do wonder is if Ash Wednesday is the day to go back take the church to the street corners. On this day of confession, wouldn’t it be better for the church to take the opportunity to make confession in quiet. Isn’t there something odd about the only day of the year that clergy are out on street corners in vestments is the day we tell people they are sinners and dead because of it?

      I think there are so many others ways we could accomplish this “take the church to street” goal. Why are we not lighting advent wreaths in advent? We are we not proclaiming bright Monday blessings at Easter? We are we not out speaking with people at Pentecost? We are we standing on subway platforms with candles to light at All saints?

      Like I said, I am not question a particular observance or experience of Ashes to Go, I am questions the the assumptions behind the idea.

      Never the less, my questions don’t at all invalidate the practice. They are just questions. Thanks for taking the time to comment, I will check out your piece!

      Like

  15. Your thoughts resonate with my own. There are many ways that the Church can go out and BE among the people. For me, “getting drive-by ashes”—trivializes the symbolizm of the ceremony and the absence of community for the occasion, tears away the deeper meaning of the ashes. I think certain rituals have brought the people together—and, somehow, standing on a corner or sitting in a car for the ashes to be swiped on one’s head—further alienates each person from the Church community. It speaks loudly to me of how often we are like the Pharisees — Sunday Church-goers who have no compassion for our neighbor on food stamps on Monday…now our Selfies can display our loyalty to the Church–but, actually, we “lack: the incentive to go and be PRESENT in community.

    Liked by 2 people

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