Ashes in the Public Square: What do they mean?

There’s a lively debate in Episco-land about the appropriateness of “Ashes to Go” an effort that began several years ago to bring the liturgy of Ash Wednesday into the streets. Here’s a press report from USA Today (last year).

Here are views from several priests. From Scott Gunn:

The world is more full of seekers and wanderers than it is of disciples. Our task, as Christians, is to share the Good News and preach a gospel of hope in a world without much real hope. If we limit ourselves to those who would cross our thresholds first, we will be limited indeed. The imposition of ashes is not a sacrament. One need not be baptized to receive them. And, it seems to me, the act of receiving an ashen cross and a reminder of one’s mortality is as good an invitation to repent as many will ever receive. That gray cross is a powerful sign, even when that’s all there is.

From Susan Brown Snook (she wants to take Easter to the streets, not Ash Wednesday):

But Ash Wednesday?  Surely there are more enlightening ways to touch people with God’s grace.  Leaving aside the facts Everett points out – that this quick “ashing” comes without repentance, and directly countermands what Jesus tells us to do in the Ash Wednesday gospel – that is, don’t wear your piety on your forehead for all to see and congratulate, but practice it quietly – there are other problems.  After all, what is the most immediate experience of getting “ashed”?  It is a reminder of our mortality:  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

In past years, I’ve written about my own experiences sharing ashes on the sidewalk as well as my ambivalence about doing so.

As I’ve continued to reflect on it as well as on the arguments pro and contra, I’ve come to think about another aspect of the rite, the imposition of ashes, and of carrying around that sign of the cross on one’s forehead all day.

The liturgy itself focuses on our individual piety: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But immediately upon departing the church, especially if we receive the ashes in the morning or in the middle of the day, that smudge on the forehead becomes a very public display. The gospel of the day cautions us against displaying our piety in public but unless we immediately remove it, the ashes will linger as a reminder to all of what we have done this day. It is a public act and whatever its meaning for us, people who encounter us throughout the day will also attach meaning to it.

This is where it gets interesting, especially in our current American context. With the public face of Christianity so often shaped by people who preach messages of hate, exclusion, and who claim to know what is true and right both for themselves and for the world, people who engage in culture wars over things like “Merry Christmas,” what does it mean to enter the public square with an ashen cross on one’s forehead? That sign of humility and repentance, borne in silence, can offer a powerful counter testimony to the loud and shrill voices of conservative Christianity. What might it convey to passers-by who struggle to make sense of their lives and are struggling to make ends meet? How might the sign of the cross help us bear our public Christian witness with humility, and grace, and repentance?

Even more, while the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, and certainly popular understanding of it, may tend to focus on individual acts of repentance, there is also in the liturgy a powerful communal aspect. The lesson from Joel emphasizes communal repentance: “Call a solemn assembly, gather the people.” My understanding of Ash Wednesday has been re-shaped by my experience observing it in the midst of Wisconsin’s protests two years ago.

There was a time when American civil religion involved public repentance–presidents, governors, legislatures would proclaim a day of prayer and fasting. No longer. If they do it today, they are likely ridiculed. As a society, we have lost the ability to repent. We lack appropriate rituals, even language for it. Public repentance is left to politicians or celebrities who have been caught doing something wrong, and for which they will publicly state, “I take full responsibility.,” and go about their merry way. The sinful acts we commit as a society, as a human race, go un-noticed and unconfessed. The very public act of bringing ashes out on to the street can be a prophetic act–a reminder to all those who pass by as they go about their daily business that there is a higher calling, a higher claim to our allegiance than the gods of money and power. It can be a call to our cities and our nation to repent of the sin and violence that occur in our midst and that we commit.

I think there may be no better message that we could proclaim in the public square, in 2013, than an invitation to a holy Lent, a call to repentance, and a reminder that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.”

 

 

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