Ashes: Should they stay or should they go?

By Executive Director, Forward Movement · Published 5 March

There are a few predictable moments on churchy social media. You can expect that ’round about November, people will start arguing about how to keep Advent and what colors to use for vestments. And you can expect people to line up in battle formation over Ash Wednesday and Lenten customs each year just before Lent.

weighed in on the Great Debate Over Advent Vestments one year, basically saying you can do what you want. Just don’t make up a faux-tradition to support your position. Own it as your preference, and we’re all good.

It occurs to me that something similar needs to be said regarding Lent and, in particular, ashes. Over on Twitter, the volume of Lent-shaming is especially high this year. “You must not deny yourselves


things, because God doesn’t want you to be miserable!” “You must deny yourselves things, because otherwise you’re taking God for granted!” And so on.


Writing as an Episcopalian, I naturally turn to our prayer book when it comes to questions of belief or practice. Starting on page 264, there’s quite a lovely bidding that sets out the purpose of Lent and some suggestions for how to make use of it. Go read the whole thing, but here’s the relevant part for this post:

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word."

The first thing I’d like you notice is that the celebrant invites the observance of a holy Lent. It is not a commandment. There’s nothing in the Bible that says we have to do this. So while I greatly appreciate Lent and its traditions, I’m not going to get in someone’s business if they take a pass. Instead, if anything, I will invite them to go deeper during this holy season.


Notice also that we’re meant to repent in this season. Of course, that’s our task throughout our Christian pilgrimage in this earthly life, but Lent is a whole season devoted to turning ourselves away from alluring distractions and returning our focus to God in Jesus Christ. And repentance only goes so far if we don’t take the time to see where we’ve gone astray. How can we know that we need to change direction, if we don’t take note of where we’re headed? So self-examination and repentance are not occasions for misery. If anything, repentance and return to the Lord is an occasion for joy!


The rest of the prayer book bidding’s suggestions are, as I read them, specific ways we might work out our self-examination and especially our repentance. Once again, the point of self-denial and fasting isn’t to make us miserable, it’s to help jar us out of our delusions and complacency so that we can see that we are utterly dependent on God and that following Jesus is always our best way ahead.


And then, of course, the bidding charges us to read and meditate on God’s holy word. We Episcopalians hear plenty of scripture in church, but by and large, we don’t read and meditate on the Bible all that much. Your mileage may vary, but I say this borne out of experience in congregations and out of the data we have from the RenewalWorks program. The last thing I want to do is shame someone into reading the Bible! Rather, I think if we open ourselves up to this vast and amazing witness of God’s eternal love and saving purposes for us, it will change us. So scripture during Lent is a grand idea.


All of this means that Lent is going to look a little different for each person. And it will look different in each person’s life over time. Some people will do well to practice serious self-denial in order to repent of some kind of excess. Others might do well to feast, for they need to bask in abundance. If I were serving in a congregation, I would want to introduce people to some of the ways the church has traditionally encouraged Lenten practice, but I’d never presume to tell someone what they must do for Lent. (To be clear: I think the focus on self-denial during Lent is almost always the right one, but only almost always, not for every person in every place.)


I hope you, dear reader, will take some time to think and to pray about your Lenten journey. What might help you repent and return to the Lord?


Now let’s get specific about another thing. Ashes. If you have a look at the lessons for Ash Wednesday, you’ll see that we have conflicting messages here. (This is usually the fodder of Ash Wednesday sermons, with varying degrees of success.) Joel suggests that God’s people gather and weep and fast as a congregation. Matthew, however, says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” It goes on to say, “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.”


This is all usually taken to suggest that we Christians should wash off our ashes so that we are not practicing our piety before others. It’s a fair reading, and if I am somehow wearing this sign of mortality pridefully, I should indeed wipe them away.


Twitter had plenty of folks holding this position, extending it to suggest that taking a selfie with ashes is awful and against what Matthew says. Perhaps that’s so, though I don’t know what is in another’s heart. I can say that some of the tweets about how to “properly” observe Ash Wednesday and Lent seem, to my reading, pretty prideful. The scripture is a warning about pride, not a commentary on personal appearance.


It seems to me that in our post-Christendom world, the prideful thing to do is to wipe off my ashes as I leave the church, lest someone ask me about them. I wonder if bearing this literal cross for a day (or a few hours, depending on when you go to church) is not the way we take up our cross. Let’s face it, in most places, it’s not cool to go to church, let alone Ash Wednesday. It would be convenient to go with the secular flow, to dispense with our ashen cross. Walking around with a cross could run afoul of the intent of the warning in Matthew’s Gospel about pride. But quickly getting rid of that embarrassing cross also might be unhealthy. And posting a selfie, I think, has the potential to be a humble witness of our repentance or a prideful piety-brag. But of course, this all depends on what’s in our hearts, doesn’t it?


The point is: it seems to me that there is a pretty persuasive case to remove our ashes after we receive them. But there is also a strong case to wear them as signs of our repentance. And if those ashes open the way for us to have a conversation about Jesus, so much the better. That is, ashes are not about evangelism, but sharing the Good News of God in Christ can be a fruit of the practice.


And this brings me to another front in the annual social media battles of Lent and Ash Wednesday: Ashes to Go. If you don’t know about the (new) practice, the idea is that people from a church go to places, such as train stations, where lots of people can be found on Ash Wednesday. For those who will not make it to church, they can receive just the sign of their mortality in the form of ashes. Usually the ash team will also offer to pray with each person.


Now if your congregation doesn’t want to do Ashes to Go, I think that’s fine. It doesn’t really make sense in many places, and in some communities the discipline of a parish eucharist is rightly the only option offered.


I won’t go over the whole issue here, though I’ve written about it before. Fundamentally, I think the disconnect which results in the skirmishes concerns a misunderstanding of who Ashes to Go is for. Of course, it is not for people who are members of a congregation, committed disciples of Jesus Christ. Those folks will generally do what is necessary to find their way to a church on this solemn day. Ashes to Go is for seekers and, perhaps, wayward Christians. It’s really an invitation to savor life, to live well, to realize that all that glitters is not our salvation, and, one hopes, to join a church to be with other disciples. Ashes to Go doesn’t short-circuit the practice of committed Christians, but rather expands the circle to include borderline practitioners and seekers.


The arrogance of those who do battle here is sometimes breathtaking. (Hint: read Matthew again, and read it less literally about washing our faces and more generally as a warning about religious pride.) I personally think that Ashes to Go is a worthy practice in some places, so long as it’s understood as something pointed outside the church and as long as the ritual invites people into a deeper connection with the church and with Jesus Christ.


Whatever our opinion on Ashes to Go — or Ash Wednesday as a whole — it’s worth remembering that ashes are not sacraments. They can well be offered to all who seek them. The idea that the imposition of ashes takes place in the context of a Holy Eucharist service is not something that has been observed universally for all of Christian history, to say the least. Just because something is in the 1979 prayer book does not mean that it was dictated this way by Christ himself.


And I return to the point of Lent. I hope that our Lenten practice, and the right beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday by penitential acts and markers of mortality, is encouraging repentance in us. There are a lot of ways to do that, and our prayer book suggests some good ones. But there is also wide berth for varied practice. And I hope that as we discuss these things, we are generous not prideful.


When I concluded my blog post on Advent vestments, I suggested that it was fine to wear blue, just don’t call it Sarum Blue. In other words, don’t claim that your preference is the tradition. Perhaps the Lenten analogue is: it’s fine to insist on a parish Eucharist with the imposition of ashes, but don’t pretend that’s the way it’s always been done or the only way to get our Lent off to the right start. And, whatever we do, let us be generous witness of Christ’s love in the world.


Dear readers, I hope you have a holy Lent — however you sojourn. Should your ashes stay or should they go? Well, that depends on what’s in your heart. Which brings us back to self-examination and repentance.

Scott Gunn is an Episcopal priest. In his ministry, he serves as the Executive Director of Forward Movement in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. Its mission is to inspire disciples and empower evangelists, which is something he's always glad to go on about.

Leave a Comment