She walked in as I was in the sanctuary preparing for the service – checking the ashes, making sure I had some paper towels ready, marking my spot in the Book of Worship. “Do you have an Ash Wednesday service tonight?” Yes ma’am, I replied, at 7:00 p.m. It was about 6:20 at this point. “Has it been earlier in other years?” I’m not sure, I said, I just started in July.
It turned out that she had been to our Ash Wednesday service before, and was hoping to catch the service on her way home from work before meeting with her daughter. I told her we had a community meal going on and we’d love for her to stay and eat before the service, but her daughter was expecting her and she couldn’t stay. I could tell she was disappointed.
Then I offered to do for her something I’ve never done, something I’ve argued against doing vigorously for years: if she wished, I would impose ashes on her personally and pray with her. She gladly accepted, and, after giving her some time to pray at the altar, I prayed with her and placed ashes – that ancient sign of mortality and penitence – on her forehead.
Many of my colleagues have encounters somewhat like this annually. Increasingly, among liturgical Protestants, we hear each Lent about “Ashes-to-Go.” Pastors and priests will go to a coffee shop, a farmer’s market, set up shown downtown, or go to some other public place for a time on Ash Wednesday and offer to pray with people and impose ashes on them. An each year, I hear stories of significant encounters that would never happen unless the ashes were taken outside of the walls of the church and offered on the go. My experience last night give me a sense of the meaningful connection that truly can occur in these one-on-one encounters outside of a communal worship context.
I still don’t believe in Ashes-to-Go.
I don’t regret offering ashes to the woman last night. She made a good faith effort to “get her ash in church,” as we say, and simply made a mistake. I don’t know my new community well enough to know what time nearby churches offer their services. She was also the parishioner of a friend of mine and happened to be on my side of town, and I wanted to show hospitality to a fellow United Methodist, in the same way I would hope a colleague would treat one of my church members.
Protestants seem enamored with transplanting communal rites outside of both their ecclesial and liturgical contexts – that is, taking them out of a worship setting and offering them individually. Whether it is communion at train stations or at home via skype, or Ash Wednesday around the dinner table because you’re snowed in, we seem to look for any excuse to take sacred rites to the secular.
Theologically, this is often tied to a sort of missional mindset, which observes (rightly) that Jesus didn’t spend all his time in the Temple, but went out to meet people on the road, at the city gate, and at the well. In a North American context where fewer people are making worship a priority even once a week, it seems unreasonable to wait in church and simply hope people show up. In my own tribe, United Methodists, we will often cite John Wesley’s bold step of preaching outside to coal-miners and other working class people of England at the beginning of the Wesleyan revival. This kind of sacred experience outside of church and among the people, the argument goes, is simply part of our Methodist DNA.
The problem remains the same, however, because there is a basic category mistake. Ash Wednesday, like the Eucharist, is a corporate rite. Even in situations of pastoral need – like, say, taking communion to the sick, or the woman who accidentally arrived early at my church last night – these are exceptions to the rule for those who cannot be present with the community. That’s quite different than seeking out those who could be in corporate worship and offering them a facsimile of the real thing. Ashes-to-Go is a capitulation to an individualistic culture that, however anecdotally meaningful to participants, ultimately undermines the creation of a Christian community in which worship is central. It is satisfying in the way that eating ice cream before dinner is satisfying: it meets an immediate desire but ruins the real experience of the family meal.
I don’t regret offering ashes on the go last night, but it reinforced my belief that Ash Wednesday, like Holy Communion, is a community experience whose individualistic expressions should be an exception based on pastoral need and not on convenience. I respect the desire to reach people outside of the walls of the church and the desire to try new things – and indeed, some of my closest colleagues do this annually – but I believe it ultimately misses the mark.
Let’s get, and give, our ash in church.
What has been your experience of Ashes-to-Go? What are other ways we can meet and serve people outside the walls of the church? Leave a comment below!