Are ashes to go a Protestant no-no?

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This week’s celebration of Ash Wednesday has prompted several stories built around the theme of “ashes to go” — a recent phenomena of liturgical Protestant church ministers — (I’ve seen reports of Methodist, Episcopal and Lutheran clergy involved) imposing ashes on the foreheads of individuals in public places outside of the confines of worship.

(Yes, “imposing” is the correct verb to describe the act of a cleric daubing an ash covered thumb on the forehead of a penitent. The rite is called the imposition of ashes.)

Theses stories from the Dallas Morning News entitled “Doughnuts, coffee and Ashes to Go?” is typical of the genre, as is the Baltimore Sun’s “Lenten observers take their Ashes to Go,” and the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s “Modern-day Lent: Ashes to Go.” Each conforms to the general pattern of a description of what took place; an explanation of what the ashes symbolize, a quote from someone receiving the ashes and an explanation from one of the clergy explaining why they do it. Some stories go a bit deeper and note that this practice began in St Louis in 2007 and has slowly spread amongst mainline churches.

What I have not seen in this year’s crop (though I have not made an exhaustive search of today’s newspapers) is a contrary voice saying this practice is improper. Happy voices predominate and no hard questions are asked.

Compare these stories to Cathy Lynn Grossman’s 2012 piece entitled “For some, ashes in a flash for Lent”. While it includes the elements of the stories cited above, the USA Today story also asks a spokesman for the Catholic Church what they think of the idea.

Catholic priests won’t be dishing out ashes at bus stops. The Catholic Church teaches ashes should be received within a church, during a service with Scripture, prayer and calls for repentance, says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

USA Today also asked the Episcopal priest who began “ashes to go” in 2007 what her theological reasons were for taking the imposition of ashes outside of the church building.

The Rev. Emily Mellott of Calvary Church in Lombard, Ill., and author of AshesToGo.org, describes the simple sign as a profound experience. “The ashes are an invitation, opening the door for us to the practices of Lent, a first step, a reminder of our mortality and God’s creative power,” says Mellott, who plans to stand at a commuter train stop today. “We take that invitation and that core truth out into places where people really need that. People who come to church already get the forgiveness thing.”

Anyone can accept the ashes, although non-Christians tend not to seek them. If they do, Mellott says, “we view it as an act of evangelism, and we make it clear this is a part of the Christian tradition.”

By seeking contrary voices and offering a theological explanation, USA Today wins best in show for the ashes to go stories.

I should wrap the story up at this point. I’ve identified why one particular story works best and highlighted the religion ghosts in others.

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