Gracious Ashes: The Contested Space of Ash Wednesday

I love Ash Wednesday. I love the power of the day’s liturgy. I love the simple gesture of marking the sign of the cross in ash on someone’s forehead while saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I love doing and saying that while looking into the eyes of people I’ve gotten to know over the years I’ve been Rector of Grace; people I’ve been in conflict with, people I’ve grieved with and celebrated with, people I’ve prayed with, and people who have ministered to me. I also love doing and saying that while looking into the faces of people I’ve never seen before. I wonder as I do it what brought them here on this day, for this ritual.

I love the multiple ironies of the day: a gospel reading that warns us about displaying our piety in public even as we do it; a lesson from Joel that calls on priests, the ministers of God, to weep between the vestibule and altar; a call to all of us to the observance of a Holy Lent as we get ready to go about the business of our daily lives with hardly a thought to the ashes on our forehead until someone looks at us quizzically, to go about the business of our daily lives after having been called to repentance and fasting.

And I love that Ash Wednesday has become another contested space in the Episcopal Church. The movement to offer ashes on the street–Ashes to Go–has become a point of conflict as we struggle to adapt our faith and worship to the twenty-first century. Passions run high as a quick check of comments on various posts concerning Ashes to Go on the Episcopal Cafe or other blogs will reveal. Thoughtful people have written passionately and profoundly on both sides of the question whether offering ashes outside of the liturgy of the day is appropriate. They’ve written beautifully about their experiences when offering ashes; they’ve written beautifully and convincingly about the importance of the overall liturgical context. Others have written with grace about their own ambivalence about this new practice.

In a way, the conflict over Ashes to Go mirrors other conflicts in the church. But there’s also something unique about it. I think what sets it apart is the stuff, the sign, itself. Ashes are just a little strange. Ashes are at best a by-product, the remains of a fire. Usually, they are meant to be discarded, dirt, a nuisance. Contrast that with the water of baptism or the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Ashes are dirty, unclean, impure. For many of us in the church they are a reminder and sign of our mortality. Putting them on our forehead (or allowing them to be put on our forehead) is a profoundly transgressive act. It requires us to overcome cultural and personal norms of behavior. It requires us to be open and vulnerable, to be made dirty and impure.

Ashes remind us of our mortality. They remind us of our origins (“Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return”). They also connect us with parts of ourselves that go deeply beneath the veneer of modernity and post-modernity. There are those who say that human beings’ efforts to control fire are linked to the origins of civilization. Ashes remind us of all that and more.

When we touch and are touched by ashes, all that and more threatens to come to the surface: our mortality, our humanity, our brokenness and pain. When we touch and are touched by ashes, we touch and are touched by the power of fire and the power of God. When we touch and are touched by ashes, we make ourselves vulnerable to God’s forgiving and redemptive love.

In the end, even my effort here to make sense of what we officiously call “The Imposition of Ashes” fails, because whatever meaning I make of it is just that, “my meaning” and not someone else’s. Who knows what it might mean to a passer-by who isn’t a Christian, or to someone who has never attended an Ash Wednesday liturgy? Who knows what meaning they might make of it, what emotions it might evoke, or how it might open one up to an encounter with God? We (the clergy, the Church) can’t control how people interpret and experience the liturgy, whether it’s within the four walls of a church or on a busy street corner. We can’t control the movement of the Spirit. She can use ashes to change hearts, but she can as easily change hearts without ashes–or without our help for that matter.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about me, I’ll be on the street corner on Wednesday after services at 7 and 12 noon, offering ashes to passers-by. I’ll be at the same place I am every Sunday morning before services, greeting passers-by and those who enter our doors. If past years are any indication, I’ll put ashes on a few foreheads. I’ll also have plenty of interesting conversations and encounters–but then that happens pretty much every time I walk out the door.

Some other reflections about Ashes to Go:

From Scott Gunn:

The chief complaint about Ashes to Go is that it is cheap, since you don’t have to go to an entire liturgy; one merely receives ashes in a public place. My sense is that in our culture, wearing ashes is costly. This is why Christians love to rationalize wiping them off pronto. Indeed, the Gospel for the day exhorts us to, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”

If wearing ashes on your forehead were viewed as cool (and you’d know this because celebrities and powerful people would wear their ashes on the teevees), then we would want to remove them pronto. But I suspect a smudge on one’s forehead is actually a bit embarrassing to most people. It invites questions, “What is that, and why is it there?” In other words, there is a cost to that ashen cross. So when someone in a train station receives this reminder of their mortality, they are doing it at some cost — as opposed to the socially acceptable way of getting into a station wagon and driving to church where the ashes are quickly removed in the narthex after mass, which is, from the perspective of culture, cheap and easy.

From Jared Cramer:

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.

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