Imposing Hashtags: The Problem with #AshTag on Ash Wednesday


The New, Improved Imposition of Ashes!
The New, Improved Imposition of Ashes! (graphic by David R. Henson)

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.

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.”

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.


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  • Heather McAuley

    I totally agree with your concerns raised and reasoning behind not wanting to see the church stoop to these pharasitical antics. For many years I have shied away from a public display of my faith for these reasons, and I think that for many their relationship to God is a private one as well. But then the hatred and bigotry of the fundamentalist brothers and sisters became so loud that most people equate that noise to the Christian community as a whole. So I feel for the emergent church trying to find ways to be a voice the is welcoming without becoming either that which they abhor or a spectacle unbecoming the Divine. It is a difficult navigation. Thank you for reflection and the reminder that we do not need to stoop-we need to elevate.

  • Ray McCracken

    Some thoughts on tomorrow and “ashes”:

    As Eucharistic minister I have been involved over the years in the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesdays in various places, including being a
    greeter at Sacred Heart. Many people love the wearing of ashes, it is very
    important to them. People not involved in Church at all will show up for Ashes,
    this has special significance to them. I have often wondered what this is all
    about. There must be a deeper meaning for some people that I am not getting.

    Lent for me has always been the Church’s annual retreat. The word
    “lent” itself means “spring”. Ash is dirty, earthy and a good fertilizer. But there is still more here for people than being signed with Ash as a way to reflect on their lives in light of their last days. Is it that people instinctively know that Ash is of the earth, and is one of the most fertile substances on the planet? Ash from my
    fireplace increases the pace of growth of the plants in my yard. However, does the ritual of being sealed with Ash have a deeper, symbolic meaning? Is it the receiving of nutrients to increase the pace of growth for one’s interior life?

    Are people who come to Church for ashes, coming to be nurtured so they can grow spiritually? Are they vibrating as creatures to the ancient rhythms or the earth in spring? Do they know somehow that this is the right time to enrich the soil for new growth to occur within them? Is ash more about new life for some people than a reflection on death? Is this why they come to Church for ashes? Perhaps ashes are more about our deepest longings to be reborn; rather than, our need to repent for being human.

  • BishopAndrewGeralesGentry

    You have hit the nail on the head! This consumer church is a false church. It is a comfortable one but a fake. It does not follow the Spirit where he leadeth but rather the trends in the social media not to mention the market place and whatever the latest theory taught in “the Academy” may be at the time. It has replaced the Gospel with statistics and deism. It has brought the money changers back with its blessing and prostituted itself in the bed of capitalism. It’s liturgy is the talk show in vestments. THIS is the reason the “church” is in steep decline. Just remember those 21 Coptic Christians that were martyred by ISIS were not martyred for a hashtag nor a poet nor a really divine like rabbi.

  • Pat68

    “But what is impossible for man is certainly possible with the church.”

    Love that line!

  • Sebman

    This is one of those situations where the end result truly depends on your intentions. People too often base their self worth on how many likes their images get, so if you are posting an ashtag with the hopes of getting likes then you’re doing it wrong. BUT if you are posting an ashtag to express your joy, your faith, and your gratefulness for all your blessing then by all means you should post that ashtag and share it to the world. This is the modern day version of “Go tell it on the mountains”! And if the church wants to share in a little fun then that’s something I will welcome with open arms.

  • Tim Hamner

    I like the part of the Bible that Jesus condemned.

    Ecclesiastes’ Epicurean Ceterum censeo that nought is good for man but eating, and drinking, and pleasure (8:15, 2:24, 5:18, cf. 3:12) is condemned by Jesus (Luke 12:20) in a section which contains several allusions to the Book of Ecclesiastes (cf. Luke 12:18, and Eccl. 2:4; Luke 12:20b and Eccl 2:18b, and above all, Luke 12:27 = Matt. 6:29 (Solomon in all his glory.)[…]

    Paul Haupt (1905) The Book of Ecclesiastes: A New Metrical Translation (with an introduction and explanatory notes). Baltimore: John Hopkins Press. p.6.

    “So I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life.”

    That’s what I’m doing for Lent.

  • valoreem

    I’m tired right now so take that into consideration when reading this comment. Instead of just being critical of other’s attempts to share their faith with their friends, come up with suggestions of suitable alternatives. Seems to me online photos are another way to “do life together”. I’d rather people show up for the service and snap a pic than not show up at all. I’m always saddened when Christians tear each other down and that’s how this piece read to me.

  • Ajax127

    I appreciate your point, but as I am one of those helping with ashes on the go today, I’m just happy people want to be part of Ash Wednesday. Bringing ashes to those of us who can’t get to church today is a way to get the conversation going. Yes, it does seem to take a bit of the solemnity out of the day, but I’m happy that people who normally don’t think about Ash Wednesday to at least give it a look. This is like the conversation I had once when I was taken to task over the use of the word Sunday School ( instead of Christian Formation). Most of the people I was around didn’t know what Formation was but knew the word Sunday School. My reply was, “Once I get them into Sunday School, I can teach them about right language, but if I can’t even get them into the door, what word I use doesn’t matter.” If I can at least get the conversation going about Ash Wednesday with a few selfies, I’m okay with that.

  • Claire Rebecca

    I certainly wouldn’t share pictures of my ashes, but it probably doesn’t do a ton for ecumenical relations that the two tweets you display are both from Catholic sources…

    • David R. Henson

      It’s not a Catholic v. Protestant thing. It’s a trend across liturgical traditions.

  • Fr. Brian

    Wow, this truly a depressing and cynical column, David Henson!

    Can you please consider the historical importance of being marked just by a cross? The fact that we are not utterly bathed in ashes is a sign that the church takes Jesus injunction against street corners seriously. By your argument nobody would even be allowed in public with that imposing #ashtag.

    Nevertheless, people still are communal and need the support of others to enter into prayer. That’s all this internet campaign is about.

    So please drop the hypocritical crying out against social media culture. Nobody thinks your Lent is more genuine because of it. If you think it is, you sir have received your reward.

    • Robbie Mackenzie

      Brian, I know what you are trying to say and I didn’t feel as if David was trying to castigate social media. The medium is neutral at communicating the message rather I think what David was trying to prophetically speak against was the #ashtag use as a marketing tool for differing organizations. I get that we can’t judge every motive behind the #ashtag pics but I don’t see this movement as an authentic desire for community amongst our brothers and sisters in Christ. Again, I cannot speak for them so I do not know for certain. I would hope that community was expressed in the greetings of peace at the service or the sharing of the bread and wine in the Eucharist or in the penitential prayers uttered in unison. Just some thoughts about his thoughts and your thoughts.

      • Fr. Brian

        A comment on a comment on a comment. I do not want this to get out of control.

        What does the word prophetic actually mean? Shouldn’t it bear some relation to prophecy as featured in scripture? For example, “Blow the trumpet in Zion, proclaim a fast! Call an assembly.” etc.
        Nowhere in the readings does it seem to say that US Conference of Catholic Bishops or any other group should refrain from calling the fast through promoted social media campaigns. #Ashtag is a gentle way of blowing the trumpet for the young people on snapchat or whatever they do these days.

        So when you say prophetic, is that actually code for speaking critically of others and perhaps not wanting to be held accountable? I just think that this column really failed. I don’t see anything prophetic about it.

  • Alan Christensen

    What I want to know is, how do you say it? “Hashtag Ashtag” or just “Ashtag”?

  • Rich

    Doesn’t surprise me that others are gonna get butthurt over Ash Wednesday trending on social media. I don’t think we’re in a place to judge and determine the motivation behind the pictures posted, but I think we can give kudos for any peaked interests upon our non-Catholic friends for seeing this. Rather than letting the ashes say “look how awesome I am on Ash Wednesday,” maybe we can let the ashes say “ask me how big and awesome my God is.”

    • Pat68

      And now some are moving to “Christian Education”. Point being, times and terminology changes. And sometimes, we should too.

  • guest

    I think the point of David’s article is to encourage intentionality in our Lenten devotions, not to simply ‘slam’ social media or the communal aspects of faith-in-practice.

  • Betsy

    I understand the concern of losing the meaning of a symbol. But in my experience with the college students that we lead in our Catholic Student Association, the situation is very different. They are very devoted to the truth behind the symbols, and they are also very into sharing about it on social media. These aren’t mutually exclusive. But it’s not only about self-centeredness (OK, maybe for some). It’s also about courage. These “kids” know that they are entering a war zone like nothing this country has seen. They know that if they are going to stay faithful to the Church in the world outside of Mass, Bible study groups, etc., they have got to stick together and support each other. They have got to “share” their faith with each other every day. Ashes, especially, are a public symbol that takes courage to wear in a world where they are already suffering persecution for remaining chaste and faithful to Catholic teaching.

  • JT Orzan

    In my town, a church is doing “drive by ashes” at the intersection of two streets for people who are too busy to actually go to a church service.

    • Mike Stidham

      Last year, I was student intern at a church that took the “drive by” one step further. We made arrangements with a local hospital’s chaplain to convene a team, break up into groups, divide up the hospital into wards and distribute ashes to those patients who couldn’t get to the chapel. It proved so positive that the hospital decided to do it again this year.

  • Aaron Saunderson-Cross

    I tend to agree with Fr. Brian. This article sounds good rhetorically but it relies on a flawed premise (namely that social media is inherently narcissistic and opposed to the faith). It’s also concerning the severe judgement that Henson makes of those participating in the #ashtag phenomenon (the Catechism 2478 warns against rash judgement of our neighbour). The condemnation that Our Lord makes in St. Matthew 6 is arguably against the heart — and disposition — of those who perform their piety for love of men and not of God: and yet there’s no forthcoming evidence that those posting Ash Wednesday selfies are doing so for ‘likes’ or the praise of men instead of (what I believe) utilising social media to bear witness and publicly profess a snapshot of their faith online (which is actually within the remit of evangelisation). In short I think Henson marries Biblical literalism and Neo-Luddism to unfairly criticise the intentions of Christians without substantial evidence.

  • Zephaniah

    A little overly critical in my opinion… For several reasons:

    1. The USCCB is doing its best to embrace the current technology in order to connect with our kids and young adults or even older adults.

    2. It is extremely doubtful that anyone who was not already going to receive Ashes would go to Mass for Ashes and a day that was not a Holy Day of Obligation just to get a book entitled “Lent and Easter with the Church Fathers.” Especially since there are only 50 books given away, so what are the chances that millions or even thousands of people are going to #ashtag who wouldn’t otherwise go for ashes anyway?

    3. Someone mentioned something like ‘get them in any way you can you can preach the word of God to them and maybe they will stay.’ This is an excellent point.

    4. There are way more important things that the USCCB does that merit comment – praise or critical.