Taking the imposition of ashes out of a liturgical context that includes scripture readings, the invitation to a holy Lent, and the litany of penitence, there is no insistence on the reality of sin or any call to repentance. ... To be sure, this confronts people with their mortality. But it leaves out Ash Wednesday's pointed emphasis on sin and repentance, as well as the liturgy's emphasis on God's desire that sinners "may turn from their wickedness and live" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 269). ... Ironically, without the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the imposition of ashes becomes a kind of implicit affirmation of persons as they are.
Since that time, the idea of "Ashes to Go" seems to have become more popular. I've recently seen a lot of talk about it on Facebook, and I'm aware of several churches around the country that did it this past Ash Wednesday (including an Episcopal Church here in Jackson, MS). But I still have reservations about it.
In a blog posting entitled "Ashes-to-Go: A Salvation that Remains," Fr. Robert Hendrickson shares his own reservations about this practice in ways that resonate for me. He writes:
My concern about Ashes-to-Go is that it sits apart from the fullness of the Christian message of new life and reconciliation with God and one another. Those receiving ashes hear and receive only one part of the message – they are marked with the sign of sin and death without its being situated within the context of the pledge of our redemption. The sign seems ill administered without the Sacrament.
It becomes a reminder of only one part of the Christian story. Moreover, it is a quick reminder of a much deeper process and imparts upon the reception a singular and momentary quality that invites one to a speedy Lent rather than a fuller examination of conscience and amendment of life.
The Prayer Book continues, “And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.” Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the work of Lent and is meant to initiate a deep engagement with the self, the other, and God. We hear in the liturgy that, “it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life.” Ashes-to-Go does not offer the chance to situate our repentance within the grace of Christ’s great gift.
It is as if we were to only say “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” from Psalm 51 without hearing “Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.” Within the fullness of the liturgy we are able to say, with confidence, “Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation.” For we hear of the rest of the story – that God’s saving action will never let dust, ashes, sin, or death be our end. Ashes-to-Go ends the story entirely too quickly for we do not hear and know the assurance that “He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.”
I worry that we are sharing only the mark of our separation from God rather than our conviction that God dwells ever with us and that this very dust that we are may be hallowed, sanctified, blessed, and even assumed. This reconciliation of ourselves to God brings with it the welcome to live in the fullness of the Christian life. We are given the hope that “being reconciled with one another,” we may “come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food” and receive all of the benefits of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Ash Wednesday is not about our sins alone but about our life in and with the Triune God who calls us into true life – a life free of the mark of death.
This simply cannot be communicated in a drive-by encounter. The sign of death is decisively stripped away in the Sacrament – it is that encounter with the Christ made known in the Body at the Altar and in the Church that is the point of Lent as we are brought into Communion and community.
My worry about Ashes-to-Go is that it reinforces the privatized spirituality that plagues much of the Church. “I” do not get ashes. “We” get ashes so that we may know ourselves, as a Body, to be marked for a moment but saved, together, forever. ...
On the plus side, I think it is absolutely vital for the Church to find ways to engage the changing world. This may be one such way – yet I cannot quite get comfortable with it. I am increasingly leery of the Church’s desire to find ways to make the work of the Christian life easier or faster – especially as it pertains to this most sombre and needful of seasons.
Read it all.
When we impose ashes with the words prescribed by the Prayer Book ("Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return"), the message we give each person who receives them is: "Remember that you are going to die." Isolated from the context of the Ash Wednesday liturgy - which includes the call to repentance, a stress on God's desire that sinners "may turn from their wickedness and live," the reminder that "it is only by [God's] gracious gift that we are given everlasting life," and the Holy Eucharist's affirmation that "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again" - the message "Remember that you are going to die" is very bad news!
Perhaps there are ways to take the imposition of ashes to the streets that include the fullness of the Gospel message. If so, it may be worth exploring. That's another point on which I agree with Fr. Robert: we need to find creative, faithful ways to do church in an increasingly post-Christian context.
But if we're talking about isolating the imposition of ashes from the liturgy and from communal support and accountability ("drive-by ashing"), then we may fail to communicate the Gospel in its fullness. Indeed, we may fail to communicate the Gospel at all. However, when it comes to faithfully living our Baptismal Covenant promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, we cannot afford to "half ash" it!
Be sure to not miss the reflections on all of this at Catholicity and Covenant's posting entitled "Left as consumers?"