Many of us may have noticed last week that “Ashes to Go” is apparently a growing Ash Wendesday trend among Episcopal parishes. Maybe I shouldn’t be bothered by this. After all, who am I to go around playing liturgical police, and for a communion other than my own at that? There’s no reason for anyone to ask me whether this is a good idea – but if they had, I would have expressed some ambivalence.
On the one hand, the idea of “taking it to the streets” does have something of a prophetic ring to it, if a bit romanticized. And here, as in many situations, there is a genuinely pastoral case to be made for meeting people where they live, especially those who might not frequent a church. But then I also wonder if this is a case of catering to the whims of – as the article puts it – “a fast-food, speed-dialed world,” the drive for a quick fix without commitment, receiving the end product without giving of one’s time, or physical presence, or prayer. If the imposition of ashes is taken out of its fuller ritual context, does it mean the same thing?
In my own heritage, the question of the relationship between ritual and commitment goes back to the sixteenth century. And frankly, I’m not entirely sure whether my unease stems from the Anabaptist requirement of a commitment to discipleship as prerequisite for a display of faith, or from a Catholic sensitivity to liturgical aesthetics, especially the communal nature of liturgy. In my case, it’s probably some of both. Someone more Augustinian than I am might point to the minister’s presence in the thick of the world’s daily business as an image of what the church’s witness should look like, or to the no-questions-asked offer as a symbol of the gratuity of grace. And maybe they would be right, to a degree. But the commitment has to come in somewhere. Maybe it’s for us to simply trust that it may, at least for some. I deeply believe in the inextricable connection between ritual and ethical behavior – or in more explicitly Christian terms, between sacraments and discipleship (even though we are technically not talking about a sacrament here, I think the principle still applies). And yet I have also come to believe that this connection is complex, that the latter is not only a requirement for the former, but is also enabled by it.
By the same token, because that connection itself is so essential, the Mennonite in me is in complete harmony with the Catholic insitence that “ashes should be received within a church, during a service with Scripture, prayer and calls for repentance.” It’s the disconnect between the ashes and the calls for repentance, along with the individualized reception, that seems to me to weaken the symbol by reducing the message of metanoia to one of “come and get it.” An effective symbol cannot be separated from what it represents. Can the symbol be redirected without betraying its purpose? That is the remaining question.