Ash Wednesday is coming up next week.
Those of you who aren’t asking, “What are you, Catholic or something?!?” will know exactly what I’m talking about.
Have you heard about this thing they’re calling “ashes to go?”
I keep seeing posts popping up on Facebook about all these churches offering “ashes to go” for the busy person. From what I gather, motorists form a line somewhere on church property where they’re met by a clergyperson, who reminds them amidst the exhaust that they are but dust and to dust they shall return. Ashes are imposed upon the driver’s forehead, and they drive off to go show the world they made time to be jesusy. Other iterations at least ask them to get out of their cars and form a line, but it’s pretty much the same thing.
And this is “ashes to go.”
Actually, I think “drive by ashes” would be a more appropriate name for it.
Okay, in a sense, this isn’t that big of a deal. Imposing the ashes is not like administering a sacrament. There is no real identifiable liturgical abuse going on here.
On the other hand, it certainly seems imcomplete.
What are we doing on Ash Wednesday, anyway? What’s the whole fuss about?
This portion of the assigned reading from Joel sums the whole thing up quite well, I think.
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
All the fasting, weeping, mourning, and returning all takes a good deal of time and attention. We need time to reflect and confess in preparation. That’s what the Ash Wednesday liturgy prompts us to do, and what it teaches us to do during the coming 40 days. Divorced from the liturgy, the ashes don’t make a whole lot of sense.
The whole “ashes to go” thing seems rather glib and flippant to me. I’m not saying that’s the intention, but it’s how it comes off.
And the modern church has embraced the trend of making the whole church experience too easy and accessible. We’re literally not even asking people to set foot in the building, or even getting their lazy butts out of their cars, in order to visibly align themselves with its message. That seems to me to be a mistake, even if it seems to be a comparatively small one.
I guess if you’re rapidly turning back into dust, you might want to get a move on with the rest of your earthly agenda.
Still, to fully reconcile yourself with your own mortality, well, it takes a bit of time. If people choose not to be a part of the church’s corporate ritual, they’re certainly allowed to make that choice. But maybe we shouldn’t make the whole thing too easy, lest the meaning be lost in the process, lest our willingness to accommodate teach people that this essential part of discipleship is easy and costs them very little.
In other words, instead of getting your ashes to go, maybe you should get your ash in church.