UPDATE: While I won’t be posting a selfie this year (2016), I am not going to worry or criticize this expression of the day any more. While AshTags aren’t for everyone, the post below, a year later, now seems remarkably petty.
Let’s just go all the way this Ash Wednesday and stop imposing ashen crosses on foreheads all together.
Instead, let’s simply impose hashtags made of ash.
Because, if we are honest, that’s largely what this day has become about.
The #AshTag, not the ashes.
The virtual, not the real.
The immortal digital, not the mortal flesh.
Ash Wednesday is no longer about repentance and self-examination but about retweets and selfies.
Welcome to #Ashtag Wednesday. Last year, we saw the rise of Ash Wednesday as a trending social media event instead of a solemn service. Clergy mugged for cameras in sacristies with ash on their foreheads. Parishioners shared selfies with the world.
The whole world saw Christians standing on the virtual street corner praying and making their fasts public spectacles. We did the exact thing the Gospel for the day asked us not to.
It is a frustrating trend. A dear friend once said she loved Ash Wednesday because, unlike Easter or Christmas, it was the one day on the Christian calendar that couldn’t be commodified by popular culture.
But what is impossible for man is certainly possible with the church.
Get your #AshTag in church. Where will you get your #AshTag? Post your Ash Wednesday selfie and you might be one of 50 lucky people to win a book!
These are actual pitches this year – by religious organizations – for Ash Wednesday services.
— USCCB (@USCCB) February 12, 2015
These churches, leaders or organizations aren’t encouraging people to receive ashes as part of the liturgy, as a way to enter into Lent, or as a way to ponder our mortality or the sobering reminder that we are dust and will return to dust.
Rather, they are implicitly encouraging people to come to church in order to post of selfie. It fetishizes ashes. It centers the purpose of ashes in the public consumption of photos and social media rather than in reminding us of our mortality. The systemic push within the church for Ash Wedneday selfies is an exercise in whistling past graveyards. That’s the unfortunate context of the call to “get your #Ashtag.”
— BC Campus Ministry (@BCCampusMin) February 16, 2015
So, while I truly hope people don’t post their Ash Wednesday selfies this year, I really can’t blame them. This isn’t about the individuals posting selfies. It’s about the church itself, which is promoting it, driving it, and attempting to create cool trends rather than to call people into deeper meaning for the season of Lent.
In doing so, the Church is in danger of stripping its rituals of their solemnity and meaning for the fleeting, ephemeral popularity of a social media event.
Ash Wednesday is, if nothing else, a reminder of our mortality. How ironic that now there is a rush to immortalize our piety on this day through the eternal digital life where neither rust destroys nor moth consumes.
We store up these treasures on Twitter.
We have hollowed out the holy call for self-examination with narcissism.
We’ve exchanged the sacred for the selfie.