This 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).
But 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