February 27, 2017

A Missional Take on Ashes to Go

Ash Wednesday is coming. For at least one day out of the year, we’re going to be reminded that we are dust, and that we’re going to die some day. Fun times!

Over the past several years, this solemn fast day has been infused with a missional fervor in the popular Ashes to Go outings. Part of a church-wide movement, Ashes to Go moves this imposing act from the confines of church buildings to the people in their daily lives. Interested passers-by are marked with the sign of the cross and invited to seek forgiveness and renewal (and hopefully be prayed for!). Locations to receive ashes are designed to meet people wherever they are, including train stations, bus stops, coffee shops, church parking lots, street corners, and more.

But can I be honest here for just a minute? This makes me deeply uncomfortable, but not for the reason(s) you may think. It isn’t some die-hard liturgical issue I have (although I have heard many compelling arguments in that vein). My friend Jason Evans speaks convincingly in defense of the practice.

No, what bothers me is the trendiness of the whole endeavor. The Facebook events, Instagram posts, and hashtags (#ashtag?) Are we taking this ancient ritual to the streets to meet people where they are, or because we think it is something that “good (or cool) churches” do? And do we think theologically, or biblically, about what it means to post a picture of our ash-marked foreheads for the world to see? I seem to recall Jesus giving some advice on that subject.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll be participating in Ashes to Go. It can be a key way that a church breaks down the walls and engages its community. It is missional at its core. But we are human, and because of that everything we do should be examined for motive. We can’t let our pride get in the way, and we can’t let this solemn day turn into an attention-seeking event.

The parish I serve puts an interesting twist on this. We’ll go out to the bus stops and coffee shops, so that we might reach others who are going about their daily lives. That might be the only contact these strangers have with the Church, and it is good to provide that touch. But we also provide ashes and prayer cards so that our parishioners, who attend one of our liturgies, can take this ritual to their daily lives. We’ll have folks able to offer ashes in school buildings, offices, and anywhere else their day takes them. In these instances, we provide that touch to our friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

This week gives the Church a chance to dip our toes (and thumbs) into God’s mission in our neighborhoods. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent. But let’s try to leave the hashtags to other, less important matters.