“Ashes in a Flash”

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.

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  • Brian Martin

    sometimes i wonder if too much of our “church services” so to speak, have become too ritualized and involve the masses having to come to the church, rather than the “Church” going to the people.
    Jesus basically instructed people to “follow him” literally.
    That is what it took.
    now it is come, take 6 months of classes, do this do that blah blah blah.
    maybe i’m just having a bad day, i don’t know. but i wonder if the institution gets in the way of the ministry

    • Julia Smucker

      I’m all in favor of “going to the people,” as long as the call to conversion – that is, the call to follow Jesus with all that that entails – accompanies this. If we are seeing the institution of the church as the enemy of ministry, we are doing both the church and the world a profound disservice. Think of the intensive catechesis that initiands went through in the patristic period – that is where Lent came from, after all. Preparation is a good and often necessary thing, not as a set of hoops to jump through, but to understand just what it is we’re getting into. Unfortunately it can sometimes be reduced to mere technicalities, but the solution is good catechesis, not none at all.

  • Kurt

    I do like exploring breaking distribution of ashes out of the Eucharstic Service. I’ve sought out receiving my ashes at the local Evangelical & Reformed Church (now part of the United Church of Christ). There is no service. The Minister is in the church all day and she imposes ashes to people as they come in, with a short prayer she says.

    • Julia Smucker

      What place is there for community in that?

      • Kurt

        It includes a limited but not totally absent place for community. It is a communal ritual that the Western church practices. In church and by a minister, both symbols of community.

        But it is not a communal service. And it, along with our fasting that day, nicely balances the communal nature of the eucharistic service.

      • Julia Smucker

        Kurt, thank you for reading the above as a sincere question, which was how I meant it. Looking at it later, I realized it could have been seen as rhetorical.

        I would have to disagree with the idea of the non-communal imposition of ashes “balancing” the communal eucharist. As you are acknowledging here, all liturgy does have an intrinsically communal dimension, which is why I believe it loses too much of its symbolic potency when that dimension is reduced. If the church and minister, as symbols of community, are not making the actual community present, we end up with a weaker conception of symbol.

      • Kurt


        I understand your point and see the merit in it. I would be affirmatively opposed to what I suggested becoming the universal practice of the Roman Catholic Church. Probably where much of pastoral work is — with Catholics who generally attend Sunday Mass and not much more — Ash Wednesday Mass with imposition of ashes is the best practice.

        However, particularly when there is a solid practice of communal worship — at least Sunday & Holyday Mass with Communion and maybe daily Mass, I think there can be value in our personal spirituality to stepping back from the communal aspect. For the beginning of Lent, the obligatory observance is fasting and abstention from meat. I sit at my desk in my office by myself eating my Filet-o-Fish ™ sandwich. It is a private act yet with a communal element in that I do it in union with Roman rite Catholics all over the world. Just as if I pray from the Breviary by myself, I am still uniting myself to Roman Catholic monks, clergy and laity all over the world saying the same prayers at the same time. On this day, both Mass and the imposition of ashes are optional observances. The Church is saying something here where the primary and obligatory observance (fasting) is private.

        On Sundays and Feast days we celebrate as community the Eucharist and the joy of the Resurrection. On Good Friday, there is no Mass (and on no Fridays or Wednesdays in Lent in the Byzantine Catholic patrimony). In a certain sense (but not absolutely) by union with Christ in the Eucharist and our Redemption we are together; in sin and penitence, we are alone.

        That is why I feel the option of imposition of ashes at Vespers or Lauds, or even individually outside of any liturgical/communal service (but reverently and with prayer) has merit. As we begin and end Lent (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), we “fast” from the Holy Eucharist and we feel the loneliness that sin leave us in.

        I would be interested in your thoughts.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/voxnova/ Sofia Loves Wisdom

    I agree with you. When I hear “ashes to go” I think of McDonalds. The reality is yes, we are busy. All of us. If you have kids, you are busy. Kids have activities. And if you are a working mom, as I am, it gets even crazier. But this is where priorities kick in. It is not good that we get so busy we forget to breathe and remember what this is all about. It is unhealthy. And the spiritual community catering to the disease is not going to get us healthy.

    • Julia Smucker

      Speaking of McDonald’s, I think one reason this struck me as odd was that it sort of reminded me of the “drive-through reconciliation service” that a classmate of mine had to play music for sometime last year. As he reported it, each person was allowed one sin and they all got the same penance beforehand. Kind of misses the point.

  • Gerald Schlabach

    We have sacraments but also sacramentals. If this is really done in the spirit of taking the gospel to the street, couldn’t this be to full Ash Wednesday Eucharist what crossing oneself with holy water is to baptism? Just thinking out loud here….

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Andrew Greeley (sometime in the 80s if I remember correctly) wrote about the anomalous place of Ash Wednesday in Catholic liturgies. As he pointed out, it was a penitential ritual born during the 14th century that still continues to capture the modern imagination in ways that other liturgical moments do not. For years I have heard reports of Catholics seeking out prayer services where they could receive ashes but not go to mass.

    This “ashes to go” seems to be a logical extension of this. And it is not limited to Episcopalians. Here at Trinity, I had to stop by the chapel before the only Ash Wednesday mass. Dozens of students were already wearing ashes. I ran into the head of the Catholic student group with a vial of ashes in hand. She said she had spent the day distributing ashes to students.

    I am as ambivalent about this as Julia, but as I have thought about it I think we need to step back and try to see the larger picture. What is it about ashes, and publicly wearing ashes, that continues to attract people? If no one stopped, “ashes to go” would quietly disappear as a failed liturgical innovation. It is the fact that it draws people in that is capturing our attention. There is an element of “Mc-Ashes” at work: cheap grace, an outward sign that the prophets roundly and repeatedly condemned. But I also have some sense that there is more going on here, and that ashes have a transcendent meaning we should celebrate and try to build upon. So the question, which I cannot answer is this: what do ashes mean to the people receiving them, either at mass, at a prayer service, or from an “ashes to go” worker?

  • Bruce in Kansas

    “For years I have heard reports of Catholics seeking out prayer services where they could receive ashes but not go to mass.”

    That is a much stronger critique of those avoiding Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament than it is a critique of the Church.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      By focusing your attention on “those bad Catholics” I think you are avoiding the deeper questions involved in this. Again: what does receiving ashes mean to those who seek them out in this fashion?

      • Brian Martin

        That is a symptom of our current mess. It is much easier to focus attention on “bad Catholics” or what we percieve as “bad” in other people, than it is to try to learn what is in their hearts.
        (Which is why I visit here daily, because here there is a semblance of an attempt to have people from various backgrounds and ideologies from within and without the Mother Church express what they believe and dialogue about it.)

  • Julia Smucker

    I think David is hitting on a key question here, which might somehow relate to Kurt’s point above about the connections between private and communal observance. I personally may look at the individualized reception of ashes and say that the meaning has been lost (and might still argue that it is also an extra-liturgical reception, on the grounds that liturgy only happens when the gathered community is present), but that is clearly not the total consensus, otherwise it wouldn’t work at all. So maybe the real ecclesiological and pastoral work is in finding out what the meaning is to those who participate.

    Like David, I don’t know the answer to that question, but maybe Kurt is onto something with the image of being alone in sin and together in redemption. Then again (and I think Kurt is recognizing this), it’s not a clear-cut distinction: isn’t penitence a process of moving from isolation to reconciliation?

    I guess I still can’t let go of the importance of the communal dimension, and the more fully so the better. But I think David’s question is one we shouldn’t let go of either.

    • Kurt

      isn’t penitence a process of moving from isolation to reconciliation?

      YES! There is great symbolism in moving in a pilgrimage journey from prayer to Scripture, to hearing preaching, to the penitence represented by ashes, to reconciliation in the Holy Eucharist. That process of moving is present from the start to the conclusion of a 40 minute Ash Wednesday Mass and also from the start to the conclusion of Lent and then the Great Vigil of Easter. I would just say 40 minutes or 40 days, the symbolism is there either way.

  • dominic1955

    Liturgy does not only happen when the “community” gathers. “Liturgy happens” when a priest recites his breviary “privately” because whether people are there or not, it is the public prayer (liturgy) of the Church. Same with a “private” Mass, that is liturgy. The “community” is much larger than just the people that are around in the area. There is the whole Church Triumphant and Church Suffering and legions of the Heavenly Host that participate in all that liturgy entails.

    As to the meaning of ashes and why people get them even in non-Catholic groups, I would submit that often times it is probably not that profound. Catholicism is a very cultural religion, people do a lot of Catholic things out of habit, out of the fact they get something free (lots of people show up on Palm Sunday, too) or because its just what “we” do.

    • Julia Smucker

      It appears (and I would very much hope this to be the case) that there is at least room for us to agree that all liturgy is at least implicitly communal. You are right that the community is much larger than the immediate assembly, which is one of the most beautiful truths I find in the Catholic faith. And having been influenced by Rahner’s robust understanding of “real symbol” as that which makes present what it represents, I still maintain that liturgy most truly represents the full communion of saints when it is publicly, overtly communal. Therefore a private Mass is at best minimally liturgical, and at worst an outright oxymoron.

      • dominic1955

        Admittedly, I am no fan of Rahner, but I (and the pre-Conciliar rubrics) would agree that the ideal is the communal and public with high solemnity. The ideal Mass is not the Low, but the Solemn. Still, every Mass is of infinite value and thus every priest should say a Mass a day even if it is a private Mass.

        The other issue is that one simply cannot deny the efficacy and value of the private Mass.

        From Pope Pius VI’s bull Auctorem Fidei condemning propositions from the pseudo-Synod of Pistoia-

        “28. The proposition of the synod in which, after it states that “a par-taking of the victim is an essential part in the sacrifice,” it adds, “nevertheless, it does not condemn as illicit those Masses in which those present do not communicate sacramentally, for the reason that they do partake of the victim, although less perfectly, by receiving it spiritually,” since it insinuates that there is something lacking to the essence of the sacrifice in that sacrifice which is performed either with no one present, or with those
        present who partake of the victim neither sacramentally nor spiritually, and as if those Masses should be condemned as illicit, in which, with the priest alone communicating, no one is present who communicates either sacramentally or spiritually,—false, erroneous, suspected of heresy and savoring of it.”

        No one thinks that the private Mass should be the norm, but it is not even “minimally liturgical”, it is just as much the unbloody representation of Calvary as a huge public Mass said by the Pope. The presence or lack of people does not change its essence one bit, though participation by the Faithful is of great worth for them and the Church at large.

        • Julia Smucker

          It all depends on how far sacramental efficacy goes. Efficacy is more than validity.

          I don’t know how you’ll take to Schillebeeckx, but I’d like to bring him in here. He points out “two sides to sacramentality which closely influence each other; validity and fruitfulness.” The problem is when the two become separated. Even when a sacrament meets the canonical requirements for validity, it is only fully efficacious when it bears fruit in the lives of its recipients.

          As Pope Benedict XVI said in Deus Caritas Est, “A Eucharist which does not spill over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.”

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    reflecting on this some more as I lay in my sick bed (I picked up a nasty cold and have retreated home) I think you are right to focus on the communal dimension. I remember reading an article some years ago in NCR, in which various people (I suspect famous or notable in some way) talked about their Lenten practices. One individual talked about going outside every morning at sunrise and making the sign of the cross on his forehead with ashes from his fire pit. I remember being repulsed at a visceral level by that story, though at the time I could not tell you why.

    Thinking about it now, it strikes me that this was truly an isolated act. He did this, then went in and took a shower and went on with his day. In contrast, even “ashes to go” has a communal dimension. Even if the ashes are received individually and privately, they are worn publicly. More so than even Kurt’s fllet-o-fish sandwich, this is a public act of solidarity with all the other folks wearing ashes on their foreheads that day. I find this to be a conundrum: people who will not go to mass, or even to a communal penance service on Ash Wednesday, still want to be seen in communion with the folks who did these things. Even as they reject a communal act, they are seeking to be part of the same community.

    • Julia Smucker

      David, your last sentence here is where the commitment conundrum comes in for me. What does it mean to make a display of faith without making a commitment to the community of faith, or to the Gospel?

  • dominic1955

    That is the distinction between objective and subjective. The subjective comes in on individual cases, the sacrament works ex opere operato and as such is beneficial to the whole Church. To what degree the graces from the Mass are subjectively applies to individual people (priest and congregants) depends on their own dispositions.

    As to how any one Mass influences the lives and causes fruit to be born in those individual persons is, for all practical purposes, impossible to determine.

    From Mediator Dei-

    95. Some in fact disapprove altogether of those Masses which are offered privately and without any congregation, on the ground that they are a departure from the ancient way of offering the sacrifice; moreover, there are some who assert that priests cannot offer Mass at different altars at the same time, because, by doing so, they separate the community of the faithful and imperil its unity; while some go so far as to hold that the people must confirm and ratify the sacrifice if it is to have its proper force and value.

    96. They are mistaken in appealing in this matter to the social character of the eucharistic sacrifice, for as often as a priest repeats what the divine Redeemer did at the Last Supper, the sacrifice is really completed. Moreover, this sacrifice, necessarily and of its very nature, has always and everywhere the character of a public and social act, inasmuch as he who offers it acts in the name of Christ and of the faithful, whose Head is the divine Redeemer, and he offers it to God for the holy Catholic Church, and for the living and the dead.[88] This is undoubtedly so, whether the faithful are present – as we desire and commend them to be in great numbers and with devotion – or are not present, since it is in no wise required that the people ratify what the sacred minister has done.

    97. Still, though it is clear from what We have said that the Mass is offered in the name of Christ and of the Church and that it is not robbed of its social effects though it be celebrated by a priest without a server, nonetheless, on account of the dignity of such an august mystery, it is our earnest desire – as Mother Church has always commanded – that no priest should say Mass unless a server is at hand to answer the prayers, as canon 813 prescribes.

    • Julia Smucker

      Agreed, technically speaking. But my point, echoing Schillebeeckx’s, is that the purpose of the sacraments goes beyond technically speaking. Fruitfulness is not supposed to be quantifiable. Neither is ex opere operato sacramental grace.

      Actually, I like these stipulations on how the presence of the faithful, while not technically required, is commended as normative – at least with an altar server!