Ashes to Go: A Difficult invitation to Holiness

As we approach another Lenten season, many priests around the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada are considering whether or not to adopt a relatively new Ash Wednesday practice. I’m speaking, of course, of the trend of offering “Ashes to Go.”

If you are not familiar with this new practice, “Ashes to Go” refers to a practice wherein clergy, sometimes accompanied by laypeople, go into the streets of their local community to offer the imposition of ashes for those going by. It is often practiced in urban areas at train stops or busy intersections.

The actual form of the offering varies rather significantly from church to church. In some churches people dress in street clothes and in others they wear full vestments. Some churches primarily and solely apply the ashes, others have crafted some sort of small liturgy that gives at least a bit of the Ash Wednesday experience to those who pass by.

There is even a website for Ashes to Go, complete with an about page if you want to learn more of the history of this practice. Sara Miles, Director of Ministry at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, talks about it in her new book—an excerpt telling the story of how it started in her neck of the woods was published in a recent edition of Christian Century. (There are some parts of her article I would take strong exception to, particularly the resistance to that which might be strange and hard to understand, but the point of this essay is not to argue with hers.)

The debate around the practice of “Ashes to Go” has been pretty strong, among clergy at least. It has been almost as strong, at times, as debates around Communion Regardless of Baptism. Full disclosure, I used to be in the crowd that didn’t think it was a good idea, believing that it ran the risk of not only cheapening the Ash Wednesday experience but also that it did not invite people into all that Ash Wednesday is intended to invite them. Then, after conversations at our Great Lakes Chapter of the Society of Catholic Priests gathering, I decided to give it a try… and my mind was changed (you can read about that experience here: “Invited: One Reflection on ‘Ashes to Go‘”).

I know that members of the Society are certainly not of one mind on the question, and I want to be clear that I don’t speak for the Society as a whole on this practice, but I do think that it touches concerns that are near to the heart of why our Society exists and what we are most concerned and passionate about when it comes to the contemporary practice of Christianity in our Anglican tradition.

One of the twin aims of the Society is “catholic evangelism.” Our Society is deeply interested in how we might invite unchurched and de-churched people into Christian community. Our Society believes that the richness of our catholic faith can provide strength, mercy, and discipline to those who are searching.

At the same time, our emphasis on catholic evangelism makes us wary of practices that water down the faith for the purposes of evangelism or incorporation. I think this wariness is good. Contrary to common thinking in many quarters of the church for some time now, I don’t think the way to invite people into Christianity is to find the most de-churchified way of talking about it. I think we should lean in the other direction, inviting people into strange language and strange practices that speak of another world, one that is seeking to break into and transform the one in which we live.

In my view, “Ashes to Go” can be a powerful example of just that—not of watering down, but of leaning in. The name, first off, seems cute, like it is perhaps making light of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. However, I would strongly suggest that though the name is playful, the experience is not. Someone may come up to me standing next to my “Ashes to Go” sign, thinking, “Oh, this is kind of fun and convenient,” but then that person is told that the church invites her into a Holy Lent. Ash is smudged on the forehead, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The person is told that he is sinful, but God forgives, that he is going to die…

One of the powers of our prayer book tradition is the way in which the liturgy and rubrics provide a corrective to bad theology, weak preaching, and even inadequately formed clergy. The words of our liturgies say most clearly what it is we believe—and whether or not the priest and penitent believe that this “Ashes to Go” moment is holy at the outset, the words of our liturgy make it clear that it is. The words say some countercultural, counterintuitive things. They challenge.

The most common critique of the practice of “Ashes to Go” is that it only gives the person who experiences it one part of the Ash Wednesday experience as envisioned in our prayer book—that it only gives them a portion of that countercultural message our liturgy proclaims. And this is a fair and important point… but… you cannot always say the whole message every time.

New preachers often struggle in sermon writing with trying to say too much in each sermon. “You don’t have to cover all of it in your sermon,” my homiletics professor would tell me, “Just say the piece that’s important for right now. You can do more next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.” So we must strike the balance of saying what is timely, saying it fully and faithfully, but also knowing when we have said enough—or as much as we can say at this moment.

I do believe that “Ashes to Go” can be a time when we can say enough for some people and some circumstances. In my experience, I functioned as a reminder to many of the people who passed me by in the morning, a reminder of what the day was, that the church still did talk about death and ashes. Those people may not have stopped for me, but they may now be more likely, having been reminded, to seek out a church to go to for Ash Wednesday services today.

For others I talked to, they were emotionally grateful for the experience. Their work constrained them from having an opportunity to go to services. They weren’t looking for something easy, cheap, and convenient, they simply did not have the luxury of not being at work when Ash Wednesday services were happening. One of my colleagues, another member of the Society who offered this at a highway exit, had a trucker come to him in tears, so grateful to be able to have this moment, knowing there was no way he could get to church for the full experience.

Why would we rob these people of even a portion of the Ash Wednesday message? Simply because they were unable to come and hear and experience the full liturgy? Surely not.

For others, they were curious. They never perhaps had the courage to walk into a church on Ash Wednesday, though they saw others doing it. I was easier to approach. And in this day and age, for people to want a priest to tell them that they are going to die, to invite them to confess their sins, to tell them God’s mercy is greater than they could even imagine… well, that’s a rather remarkable thing.

Most importantly, we need to remember the point of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The imposition of ashes is important. The Litany of Penitence is important. The celebration of Holy Eucharist, a reminder of the consequences of our sin and of the extravagant grace that covers those sins, yes this is so very important. But the point of Ash Wednesday is to invite people into a Holy Lent. The reason this day exists is for the purpose of one paragraph of the liturgy,

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

And this is the point of “Ashes to Go.” It’s not to get people their ashes—the ashes are only a symbol of something larger. True, some people may think that they are simply getting this checked off their list, but they are mistaken. Because when that ash is smudged, they are invited to something deeper.

A good practice of “Ashes to Go” is focused on the invitation to Lent. It includes the distributing of opportunities to observe the season at the local parish and also resources for observance in other ways. It includes the priest saying, at the very least, the invitation to a Holy Lent. It involves a moment of profound and intimate truth-telling between two created beings, struggling to live through their mortality in ways faithful and yet still imperfect.

“Ashes to Go” is certainly not the fullest and best experience of Ash Wednesday—but that does not mean that it cannot be a powerful invitation to the overworked, the curious, the seeker, the broken, to enter into the Lenten wilderness and find salvation.

Click these links to download Fr. Cramer’s “Ashes to Go” liturgy leaflet that he distributes in either PDF or Word formats.

The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan. He is a founding member of the Society,  His reflections on life and ministry can be found at his blog: Care with the Cure of Souls.