ASH WEDNESDAY was a couple of days ago and so the Church’s liturgical season of Lent begins. I have to be honest, as I told my congregation at both Masses on Wednesday, this is not my favorite season of the year. Lent requires extra liturgies and work, its true, but that’s not the part that makes the season my least favored one. It’s that business about change that makes Lent a difficult season for me. Lent is about conversion, changing our lives to more closely resemble the life of Christ into which we have been baptized and the catechumens of the church are soon to experience.
I don’t care for change in my personal life. It is always difficult to go through the change of moving from one parish to another parish. A change in my routine can leave me unsettled. The new translation of the Mass has been a frustrating change to accept and I’m still not as comfortable presiding as I was when I had the ordinary parts and major prayers of the Mass memorized praying from the heart. Now I feel like I’m proclaiming words with my nose stuck in the missal, not quite praying, yet.
Lent means taking seriously the life of conversion we embrace in baptism and can seem like a long, long season that makes big demands. It’s work and I’d rather go on vacation. Yet, Lent is here and I better get on board, especially if I intend to be a guide to the journey of Lent for my parishioners.
It seems that the custom of marking ourselves with a cross of burnt palm ashes on the first day of Lent has caught on with Christians beyond the Catholic Church. In the last few years I’ve heard of more and more Protestant ecclesial communities marking the day with the imposition of ashes. Yet I wonder if they “get it.” Three stories of other denominations taking the practice to the street and out of the church building caught my attention this Ash Wednesday.
Not a member of a congregation or think the roof will fall in on you if you set foot in a church building? Perhaps “Ashes to Go” is for you. A group of churches in St. Louis had their pastors standing on a busy street corner giving ashes to anyone who stopped by. Too busy to go to church? “Drive Through Ashes” are now available at a church in Ohio. (That reminds me of an old Catholic Confession joke about a young priest setting up a drive through confessional he called “Toot and Tell” to the consternation of the Pastor in charge.) A bit less unorthodox but still geared toward busy people where they are at during the day is Ashes at the Office. What’s up with these unusual methods of offering ashes? Do the people receiving the ashes know what they are missing or even why they are getting smudged with burnt palm on the street corner? Do they even know where the ashes come from (or are these street corner ministers using the wood fire-place ashes?)
My first reaction to the stories was negative. “These ministers are missing the point! There’s no sense of community on a street corner or parking lot! These churches are trivialize the sacramental experience of ashes.”
Yet, after a bit of reflection I thought perhaps these churches are bringing the Gospel out into the world, doing a bit of street preaching. After all, our society needs to hear the call of “Repent!” There is so much about our culture that needs to turn around (the meaning of Repent) and go in a different direction. We are a culture that has become more and more marked by a sense of radical individualism that sees no responsibility for the neighbor. There is denial that ultimate truths do exist and that they are ignored at the peril of humanity. We can preach all we want in a church building, but those who God is seeking to invite to change their lives are out in the streets, too.
And concerning the people who avail themselves of “ashes to go,” they do seem to realize the need for change in their lives. There is a desire to be better people. Priests often joke that there are always crowds in church on Ash Wednesday because something free is being given out. But, I believe that folks are acknowledging something very deep in their private thoughts that is intuitively known. We’ve got to change! We need to do something other than what we’re doing, because we’re not going to be able to clean up the mess we make of our lives and the lives of others on our own. The church has that “something,” or rather “someone.” We can offer a relationship with the Savior, Jesus. When someone presents himself or herself for ashes, where ever that happens, that person is looking for a way to connect with the saving grace of Jesus. Maybe if they get their ashes on the street that will lead them to our church doors.
I’m not ready to stand on the street corner, myself, imposing ashes on passersby. (There wouldn’t be much business in Trenton, anyway. We’re a pretty churchy town and a rural community.) Yet, I feel that I do bring the gospel into the market place in my own way. Maybe these stories of ash distribution in unconventional places challenge me to see what else I (and my parish) should be doing to witness to Christ outside the church door. More change to consider.
Concerning the picture at the top of this blog post; it is of a parishioner I gave ashes to this year. How can you resist such a big canvas? He was good-natured about my enthusiastic smudging. There’s no skimping on symbols in liturgy I preside over! I was taught and believe that minimalism weakens the sign value of a liturgical action. Such lavishness and abundance may embarrass some people or seem unnecessary to people who were taught that you only need dribble of water to baptize, that a little dab will do you of holy oil and that a flat tasteless host is bread. God does not skimp in his mercy. Symbols need to be bold enough to experience their power. Minimalism is like whispering, like we’re saying something private or embarrassing. Are we embarrassed about Jesus and what God is doing for us through the Holy Spirit? The church and world need a message it can’t miss, that’s in it’s face, so to speak (or in this case “on the face.”) “Big” gestures and abundant symbolic materials are comparable to speaking out loud in a clear voice, with a message of Good News of God’s abundant love we want everyone to hear. Remember Psalm 23 says that the psalmist’s “cup overflows” as a sign of God’s abundant love that cannot be measured.
So, as I greeted people leaving church on Ash Wednesday, I wish you, too, my blog readers, “Repent well! Have a good Lent.” May you and I arrive at Easter, having allowed God to work in us, changing us into a people more bold in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’ love outside the walls of our churches in word and action. May this Lent and all our Lents make us more ready for the final change that our death will initiate, our birth unto the everlasting life of heaven.
UPDATE: since first posting this article I’ve discovered there’s an “official” movement and website for Ashes to Go and more to the story. Isn’t there always? Here’s the website link if you’re interested in the story and reason for Ashes to Go and to find out how many places held the worship in the street event this year.