Ashes to Go or not to go, that seems to be the question…

It’s that time of year when we will be treated to enthusiastic media reports and Facebook posts about fellow clergy “taking to the streets” on Ash Wednesday. Perhaps you are planning to do just that. You might be thinking, “What an innovative, relevant, outward-focused, accessible, hospitable, humble ministry to undertake.”

Before you put on your gear and head out with the Lenten swat team, can we be real for a moment? I know you are chomping at the bit to “meet people where they are” at your local commuter hub, but please pause with me in the sacristy for just a second.

I was so nervous about offending you that I almost decided not to put this out there, which says plenty about the fragility of my own clerical ego. But I need to be honest with you about how weird this “Ashes to Go” thing is. It’s really quite macabre to impose a sign of mortality and repentance without the freeing experience of ritual repentance or the pronouncement of God’s absolving grace by a priest of the church. I know you prepared a nice post card with Psalm 51 and a forgiveness prayer – but that doesn’t get the job done. Also, I’m wondering if you will be at the same corner on Easter Day to proclaim the Resurrection…but let’s stick with Wednesday for now. It’s hard to make a right beginning of Lent while on your way to Target after work. If one wishes to repent, they might prefer to speak with you privately or offer a prayer of the church in a less hurried manner. Those who can’t make it to scheduled Ash Wednesday liturgies often drop by a local church between services to receive ashes from the parish priest. I have never seen someone turned away.

Do we have the practice of standing on street corners offering last rites to anonymous ambulances as they pass by? Better to go to the hospital and spend a little time, no? I understand that God’s grace works in mysterious ways. The saints of God are doing their thing in schools, or in shops or at tea and all that – but why are we stalking people with ashes as they go about their business? Why are we turning Ash Wednesday into freaky Friday? Every morning is still Easter morning, right? Or did I lose the plot at some point?

I am totally with you on taking church to the streets. Let’s do it! Our common life as Episcopalians is grounded in the Eucharist and rooted in resurrection. Why don’t we begin by offering the body and blood of Christ outside the sanctuary? How about washing and massaging the feet of weary commuters waiting for the bus? Let’s offer anointing with holy oil for healing on the sidewalks. Why don’t we venerate the feet of the homeless and outcast on Good Friday at a local shelter? How many baptisms have we conducted in a public park lately? Why don’t we set up hours to hear confessions in local bars and offer God’s forgiveness?

Why start with ashes? Ashes rather than water, or bread, or wine, or oil is a strange place to begin from the perspective of ritology. Religious signs and symbols operate differently outside their ritual contexts. Are we not worried about re-defining ourselves as “people of the ash?” Just to put my money where my mouth is…I presided at a Eucharist in the Hyatt parking lot while I was chaplain to Integrity at General Convention in 2012. During the Eucharist, a young adult was baptized in the hotel fountain while cars and pedestrians and pigeons passed by. It seemed to work. I’m serious about these “hit the streets” ideas and many of my colleagues and I have tried them. The streets are a great place for the rites of the church. Preaching in the streets has transformed my understanding of preaching dramatically as a preacher and a teacher of preaching- so I’m not just a spokesman, I’m a client.

My concern is this: I fear that Ashes to Go is a way for cloistered clergy and baby boomer bishops to check the box of relevance while presiding over an institution that is not “meeting people where they are” in ways that really matter. Ashes to Go risks nothing, it costs us nothing, and it bears witness to a wimpy church. Please prove me wrong on this point.

I intend to check this out with my therapist and spiritual director, but I have a hunch that most of us who vest in alb and stole and stand for a few hours on the sidewalk with a dirty thumb are desperate to feel that we (and by extension the church) have something real to offer. We do have something to offer and its Jesus Christ. Living out our vocations as priests is often grueling and thankless, even in the midst of many blessings. Let’s be honest about that and help each other to really walk in the ways of Jesus Christ, rather than participating in empty ritualism. If you have a robust street ministry, then by all means – ashes should be a part of it. But too many of us in the ashes only category will congratulate ourselves on having participated in a radically welcoming street ministry this Ash Wednesday. What will we really have accomplished in Christ’s name? Who will really have been served?

Why don’t we take our ministry to the streets for real?! Let’s spend more time at the county jail. Let’s join local protests against inhumane corporate practices. Let’s deal with greedy landlords. Let’s go to city council meetings and hold the feet of elected officials to the fire. You know, Jesus stuff. Amos said something about God taking no delight in our solemn assemblies. Let’s be real about the ongoing need for the institutional church to publicly repent of its apathy, survivalism and indifference to human suffering.

Let’s agree that if Ashes to Go is the only liturgical street performance we do, it falls a bit short of the Great Commission. Under scrutiny, it appears to be a disconnected feel-good give-away ministry in which we clergy self-importantly smudge our neighbors and go home satisfied. Hey, we reminded each other of our common mortality. News Flash: People are well aware of their mortality. They are suffering. It would be better for us to go out and glitter bomb people while shouting, “God loves you!” Then we could dance embarrassingly down the road to the next missional endeavor. I ask you, my colleagues, why not give the people a garland instead of ashes? Why not give people reason to believe that the church is a very present help in time of trouble? Not notionally. Really and truly. We do that by hitting the streets genuinely, not gesticulating oddly with a crystal jar of ashes on the light rail.

When the Christian people of God are moved by the Holy Spirit to remember that they are dust and begin again, they will find their way to a local church. Let’s not get our ashy hands all up in their business and tell ourselves it’s an act of evangelistic kindness. We’re Episcopalians. Let’s live as if we are a resurrected people. Lets serve our neighbors faithfully, selflessly and humbly every day. Then folks will know by our actions that, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”

Ash Wednesday services in my parish are at 7am, noon and 7pm. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, come join us. You’ll be very welcome.

Your brother on the road,
The Rev. Michael Sniffen
Rector of The Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, Brooklyn

Comments

  1. Melanie Barbarito says:

    I knew that I was bothered by Ashes to Go but hadn’t taken the time to think it through theologically. Thanks for this. I was beginning to think that it’s the “cool” thing to do and that those of us who don’t do it are somehow missing the boat. The totality of the Ash Wednesday service is wonderfully significant. As you say, it’s not just about a black smudge on the forehead.

  2. Kathrine Ebert says:

    It was a relief to read this article and find support for my concerns about the practice. The priests of my parish are doing this and I don’t understand why. Although we have an historical and deeply honored practice of reaching out to all comers in any way we reasonably can, “Ashes to Go” seems a bridge too far and one lacking in useful support. The well-reasoned concern, written by a priest, bolsters my courage to ask my own for a discussion of their reasons for doing it and what they expect the recipients to get from the practice–if that’s even important or knowable.

  3. Anthony Parker says:

    We offer Confessions and Unction on the sidewalk in front of the church along with the ashes. Our brochure is about Easter. I think we are covered.

  4. The Rev. Joe O'Steen, Priest in the Episcopal Church says:

    Bravo, Michael! I spent 17 years as Associate Rector of Church of the Redeemer, Brooklyn. In retirement, I work at St. Andrews, Pearland, Texas (adjoining Houston). We take our Pet Blessings, on St. Francis’ Day to the Stores which supply pets’ food and other needs. We also leave the building twice a year to repair houses for elderly or poor people, and serve other people in our community. Also, about twice each year who have AndytoGo, at a number of homes and other locations (about 12) over a long weekend, for a brief service, with communion from Reservation, ( inviting neighbors and friends to participate), followed by food and drink. We are now starting a satelite ministry in an underserved area of the city. Fr. Joe

  5. There’s always the gospel about washing your face so you appear not unto others to fast like the Pharisees. Is it a benefit to make Pharaseeism available on every street corner?

    • Edwin T. [Ted] Chase] says:

      Are you saying, then, Fr. Chris, that my failure to cleanse the ash from my face before hitting the streets after mass on Ash Wednesday is Pharisaism? Or is at least in serious danger thereof?

      Around this time of the year I often hear the gospel text to which you refer thrown at me, usually by hostile Protestants or more “proddy” fellow Episcopalians who either abhor the practice of ashes or would have us carefully remove every trace of ash before leaving mass and going out into the street. To be fair, the text seems to me to address the conspicuous parading around in public of one’s own personal devotional practice, like weekly Friday fasting and abstinence, or what I’m giving up or taking on for Lent, in order to be lauded by others, rather this once-a-year corporate sharing in public acknowledgement of our mortality and sinfulness.

      Almost everything under the sun, it is true, is susceptible to corruption and degeneration into self-promotion — I can almost hear myself saying, “Thank God I’m not like those others over there who are actually going out and about in public with faces still smudged by ashes!” The ancient practice, however, by which I publicly acknowledge my own sinfulness and the Church’s, in company with Catholic Christians throughout the West and in solidarity with penitents throughout the centuries, feels to me more akin to the Publican’s beating his breast (in public, not in private) and crying (aloud, not secretly) “Have mercy on me, a sinner,” than to the Pharisee’s self-laudatory proclamation of his holiness. The fact that this text has for centuries provided the “gospel” for this day’s liturgy, coexisting peacefully, without embarrassment or apology (at least until the late 20th century, when we suddenly became so much wiser than all previous generations of Christians), with the practice of pretty public, corporate fasting and ash-smudged faces, would seem to lend at least a modicum of support to my understanding.

      As for “ashes to go,” I am genuinely moved by the many thoughtful and loving expositions on both sides of the question. I can find no fault with those who, moved by love, do, or those who, moved by love, do not. While my own personal bias tends to run with Fr. Michael Sniffen’s thoughts published above, if anyone’s words can convince me otherwise, they would surely be those of Fr. Jared Cramer SCP, whose thoughts may be found at his blog-site, http://carewiththecure.blogspot.com/2013/02/invited-one-reflection-on-ashes-to-go.html, and through the website, http://www.thescp.org/tracts/ashes-to-go-a-difficult-invitation-to-holiness/ and Facebook page of the Society of Catholic Priests (North American Province), of which I am an enthusiastic member. As of the writing, I am still not sure whether tomorrow will find me, once again, at the bus stop next to the parish property, or, once again, remaining somewhat closer to the altar of the parish church. In either case, I hope that what I shall be making available there or on every street corner is not Pharisaism, but an urgent invitation to God’s love!

  6. Laurie Eiserloh says:

    Hi Michael,

    I like your thought provoking piece on ATG. I really love the idea of a glitter bomb. So here’s my experience with ATG. As a Lay Eucharistic Minister, I was asked to help with ATG last year. Our church, St. David’s, is in downtown Austin, TX and has been since 1848. We minister to many in the downtown community including the homeless and provide a cathedral-type presence. Everyone from the Daughters of the King to the Austin City Board of Adjustment meet at our church. So not a big stretch for us to be out in the street, but still it was a little different.

    At first, our team looked like something out of Fellini film. All of us in flowing vestments with the thurible walking through the streets. Silly and like you say, not really the point. And then things got weirder and in some ways it started to click. We arrived at our corner, 6th and Congress, if you know Austin. This is a corner often occupied by sidewalk preachers and, until his death several years ago, the late Leslie Cochran, a homeless cross-dresser extraordinaire. Some of you remember Leslie.

    The first group to surround us, and I mean surround, were Episcopalians who read about us on Facebook and were just super glad to see us on the streets. The next group to approach us were the Catholics from the Cathedral where the noonday service was running long and line for ashes was out the door. This was the largest group of people who came to us. The next group were workers on heavy equipment and city buses who double parked and asked our priest to administer the ashes. Finally, there were the homeless, office workers, the curious who just wanted us to hold their hands and pray with them. The ashes were not the focus for this group as much as just standing together praying.

    When we returned to St. David’s our formerly pressed white surplices were grubby with sweat and ash and we were emotionally and physically tired. Although we overheard a number of comments, my favorite was, “They aren’t Catholics, that’s the Church of England.” Clearly we need to get out more. Agreed ATG isn’t the whole picture or even part of it, but at least in my experience it seemed to work in the context of busy street corner in Austin.

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