Sidewalk Ashes: An Invitation to Be Problematic For a Day

“Ash Wednesday Lent Season 2015,” John Ragal, Flickr C.C.

It’s Ash Wednesday which means it’s time for that new practice that makes the liturgical purists cringe. I call it sidewalk ashes. Some people call it ashes to go, which is terribly corny marketing. I’ve seen some strong critiques of sidewalk ashes this year. I understand the rationale. We need to do liturgy as a community. We need to stop bending over backwards to make things so easy for people. I get it. And yet, the fact that sidewalk ashes are problematic makes it even more appealing to me as a pastor.

I value tradition. There is nowhere that I am able to worship God more fully than the 7 am mass in my neighborhood Roman Catholic church. Everything about the liturgy is beautiful to me. “It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation to give thanks to you, O God our Father Almighty.” “Look not on our sin, but on the faith of your church.” “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” It is more sacred to me that we say the same words every time than if somebody were up front winging it with a “Jeezus-we-juss” prayer.

Now a certain kind of person would say well if you like worshiping in a Catholic church, you should just become a Catholic. I like everything about Catholicism except the patriarchy since my wife is called to ordained ministry. But I am blessed richly by the liturgy even though I’m not fully on board with every aspect of the polity and doctrine. There’s a certain kind of mind that can’t handle that. And that’s fine.

I love liturgy and I don’t see any reason not to use it subversively and pragmatically according to contextual purposes of discipleship and evangelism. That’s where certain minds start exploding. Ash Wednesday involves a powerful symbol — an ashy cross on a forehead — that doesn’t have to have one agreed-upon meaning or even two. Since I grew up Baptist and was mostly ignorant of Lent even after I became Methodist, I actually didn’t get that ashy cross on my forehead until I was in seminary. So it wasn’t really traditioned for me in the same sense as it might have been for a cradle Methodist. I started doing drive-thru and sidewalk ashes as an associate pastor two years after I got ashes myself for the first time, so nothing seemed odd about it. As someone who grew up evangelical, my first instinct was to think about how these ashes could help people witness in their workplace (which is making some of you cringe now for an entirely different reason).

What does it mean to have an ash on your forehead? As far as I can see, not a whole lot if you only get it at an evening church service where everybody else gets it and you go home to wash it off thirty minutes later. It’s a different thing entirely to have it on your head an entire day. To walk around your workplace, shopping, and driving the kids to soccer having to deal with all kinds of awkward glances and questions. Especially if you’re not Catholic. Now we really should do what the Catholics do and have actual 7 am masses every day so that on Ash Wednesday, people would have it in their routines to come at 7 am and enjoy a meaningful service, after which they would carry the awkward symbol on their forehead all day.

But I don’t think there’s anything Christian about expecting people to “earn” their ashes by sitting through a church service. What an ironic concept anyway: to earn a symbol that says you are a problematic sinner who publicly declares your affiliation with a problematic religion that has historically sinned greatly against humanity. I suppose that one of the criticisms of wearing an ashy cross around publicly is that it might appear self-righteous. But today in the age of Trump and the constant media reminders that white evangelical Christians are his support base, is there anything self-righteous about identifying with Christianity? Is any self-aware Christian not at least a little bit sheepish about doing that? Would anyone today actually feel inferior to somebody wearing an ashy cross on their forehead?

It could be that my context on a college campus is unique, but being a Christian at Tulane University is super-problematic. To wear a cross on your forehead risks broadcasting to your classmates that you endorse five centuries of genocidal colonialism, that you’re willing to share a pew with people who want to discriminate against gay people, that you believe in “thoughts and prayers” instead of community organizing for social justice. You might lose friends. Someone might pull you aside and say it’s really triggering me that you’re throwing your religion in my face like that.

You’ll mostly get people saying things like “What’s that? Did you have a mascara accident?” or “I didn’t know you were Catholic.” Maybe someone will think, “Wait a minute! Dan’s a Christian. But Dan’s not a judgmental asshole. Hmm… What does this mean?” Maybe there will be a conversation in which you simply say very human, unrehearsed things in response to awkward questions and somehow that will cause somebody to see being a Christian as something human and unscary rather than just a category of strange and horrible people that Buzzfeed likes to viralize stories about.

If we’re going to bear witness to our faith as Christians, I can’t think of a better way to do it than to have an ugly smudge of ashes in the shape of a cross on our foreheads. It’s not preachy. It’s not glamorous. It’s simply a way of saying I’m problematic but this is who I am; I hope you can still love me. When the ancient Israelites wanted to express collective shame, they did so with sackcloth and ashes. The most clear biblical antecedent to Ash Wednesday is Ezekiel 9:4, which says, “Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of those who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.”

That’s what I think we’re doing when we put ashes on our foreheads if we’re going to be in sync with the Hebrew prophetic tradition. We are sighing and groaning over the abominations of our church and our nation. We are saying the way things are is not okay. So it’s not solely a means of identifying ourselves as Christians. It’s identifying ourselves as penitent Christians who wish to repent publicly of the ways we have sinned as a church. It’s owning our problematic identity rather than hiding it or disavowing it.

That’s why I’ll be wearing ashes and offering them to others on Tulane’s campus this Ash Wednesday.

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