Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the Christian season of preparation for the annual celebration of Jesus’ passion and resurrection.
In some Christian traditions (including mine, the Anglican), churches hold special services at which attendees have ashes imposed on the forehead as a mark of sorrow and repentance for their sins and as a visible sign of the start of a Lenten journey. Lenten journeys are frequently characterized by an individual adopting a special spiritual discipline, giving up something (caffeine, TV, etc.) or taking on something (praying one of the daily offices, volunteering more time in helping others, etc.). In either case, the spiritual discipline is generally intended to help the individual focus more attention on God and on walking more closely in Jesus’ footsteps. These Lenten spiritual disciplines, though tailored to and chosen by the individual, function analogously to the practices of observant Jews.
Recently, some congregations and clergy have engaged in what they call “Ashes to Go.” The intent is to take ashes to people, whether on street corners or elsewhere in response to diminished attendance at Ash Wednesday services and a good faith effort to accommodate faithful but over-scheduled people. At least one priest, who is part of the “Ashes to Go” movement, tries to engage a person who wishes to receive ashes in a brief conversation about the person’s spirituality and then offers a brief prayer along with the imposition of the ashes.
Imposition of ashes outside of the Book of Common Prayer’s Ash Wednesday liturgy (or an equivalent service in another tradition) raises questions about the meaningfulness of imposing ashes. Is wearing ashes for the remainder of the day simply a method of drawing attention to the wearer’s piety, real or imagined? If so, a prima facie reading (and probably a careful exegesis as well) of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, the gospel text widely read on Ash Wednesday, condemns the practice. Is wearing ashes for the wearer’s benefit, rather than trying to send a message to anyone else? If so, ashes may help to remind the wearer, conscious of the mark on his/her forehead, of his/her dependence on God’s grace. Of course, similar questions apply to persons who receive ashes in a traditional Ash Wednesday service.
Awareness of personal sin is less pervasive today than in some previous generations. Furthermore, belief in hell has also decreased as has belief in a wrathful, unforgiving God. Many Christians and Christian clergy today believe in a God whose perfection is neither marred nor diminished by embracing imperfection in anyone or anything. Jesus’ death on the cross is increasingly regarded as a demonstration of God’s unbreakable, infinite love for us. This interpretation rejects expiatory, propitiatory, and substitutionary explanations of the crucifixion. Theses latter theories all have the unintended and often unvoiced consequence of conceptualizing God as either a child-abuser or masochist.
Nevertheless, evil and sin are pervasive. The prayer of confession in Enriching Our Worship elegantly expresses the pervasiveness of evil and sin: “God of all mercy, we confess that we have sinned against you, opposing your will in our lives. We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” Admitting one’s sin, turning towards God more fully, and seeking to make reparation for one’s sin are steps away from evil and toward more abundant living.
If the imposition of ashes, whether in a traditional Ash Wednesday service or from someone offering Ashes to Go, assists one in that spiritual journey, then receiving ashes is worthwhile and commendable. Otherwise, the imposition of ashes seems to replicate practices Jesus rebuked: "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)