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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Tamar's Ashes

Tamar - Marc Chagall
The Bible does not mention Ash Wednesday or the custom of Lent.

Any. Time. Any. Place.

Before Jesus went out into the wilderness for "forty days and forty nights" - the length of time of our 'modern' Lent - he didn't have John smear ashes on his head. Indeed, he went there "immediately" after he had been baptized.

In the Gospel chosen for the Day (Matthew 6:1-6,16-21), Jesus is pretty clear about the whole business of fasting and ashes:
"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward".
Truth be told, I've always sorta side-stepped the issue in Ash Wednesday sermons. I've sometimes confidently muttered things like, "Well, it's an ancient practice we see in Scripture. It's a way to signify the practice of repentance and/or mourning. It has come to signify our mortality."

Well, while that's all true, the practice still nags at me, all these years later.

So, I did a bit of a word study/search for ashes in Scripture. I found a few sources, like Job 2:8 "Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes".

And, Esther 4:1 "When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly".

I also found it in Daniel 9:3 "So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes".

I even found it in Matthew 11:21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes."

But it was the Rape of Tamar, "the beautiful sister" of Absalom, son of David, by Amnon, the son of David, that took my breath away (2 Samuel 13).

Now, Amnon lusted after Tamar and had devised a way to lure the virgin woman into his bedroom by pretending to be sick. When Tamar went to feed him the bread she had made, Amnon grabbed her hand, pulled her into bed and raped her.

Then, he sent her away.
“No!” she said to him. “Sending me away would be a greater wrong than what you have already done to me.” But he refused to listen to her.

He called his personal servant and said, “Get this woman out of my sight and bolt the door after her.” So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her. She was wearing an ornate robe, for this was the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore. Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.
The story ends like this: "And Tamar lived in her brother Absalom’s house, a desolate woman".

Takes your breath away, right?

I also noted, in my word study, that Tamar is a female name of Hebrew origin meaning "Date Palm" - the large branches of which are used in Jerusalem (and in some church's here) during the Palm Sunday re-enactment of Jesus' entry into the Holy City.

Interesting, that we "make" ashes - at least these days for liturgical use - by burning last year's palms from the Sunday of Passion. 

Mordecai was deeply grieving. Daniel and Job were truly repenting. Tamar, however, was mortified, deeply ashamed about what had been done to her, as well as grieving what had been stolen from her.

That's not what Jesus was talking about. Jesus said, "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."

So, it's not about getting ashes just to get ashes and let everyone know that you went to church. It's about an outward and visible sign of your inward and spiritual grief, repentance and/or mortification or humiliation.

It's about intention. It's about sincerity. And, authenticity.

Which is why I'm still uncomfortable - ambivalent, really - with the whole idea about taking ashes to the streets.

The ENS headline in yesterday's article read: CHICAGO: Ash Wednesday rites will be taken to the streets and railway stations. Apparently, "More than two dozen congregations, stretching from Chicago to Dixon, will be taking the Ash Wednesday rite of imposition of ashes to the streets, coffee houses and transit stations of their communities on Ash Wednesday, March 9."

The diocesan-wide effort, called "Ashes To Go", reportedly started with an idea by the Rev. Emily Mellot, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Lombard in response to church members regrets about not being able to attend Ash Wednesday services at the church.

She brought the idea to her Vestry, thinking that maybe they could begin taking Ashes to the Commuter Train Station where her people were. Next year. Maybe.The Vestry got so excited that they started the program nine days later.

This year, it's a diocesan-wide event.

The article states:
Taking the Ash Wednesday rite to the streets is modeling what Jesus did in his ministry, said Mellott. As she notes in her introduction to the Ashes to Go: Liturgical Outreach resources, Jesus preached, healed and taught in the public space where the people in need of a sign of hope were. Ashes, she says, "belong to the public spaces and the daily work of our lives, not just to the times and spaces of the regular worshipping community."

As a tool for evangelism it provides a powerful symbol of the church's commitment to meet and engage people in their daily lives, a message that struck home for members of her parish last year, said Mellott. "Several parishioners and others have told me that what matters to them about the ashes is the ability to wear their faith in public, in all the ordinary, everyday things they do. And there's not much more everyday in nature than commuting."
Really? Is that what they're doing? 'Wearing their faith in public'?

Is that what Jesus meant when he said, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also"?

I suppose some are. Probably many of her parishioners. But, what of the others?

Or, is this what Jesus meant when he said, "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"?

I guess my biggest problem is not that "Ashes to Go" happens out in public, on a commuter train, but that it does not happen within the context of prayer, much less liturgy. Or, community.

I apologize. I'm a priest. Calling a community of faith to prayer is really important to me.

Yes, Jesus met people where they were, doing the everyday things of ordinary life. He taught and healed in public - right in front of God and everybody.

Near as I can figure, he didn't have a Temple of his own. Didn't keep office hours. Didn't show up at Temple every Sabbath. Didn't hand out business cards or carry a sign. Didn't even wear identifiable clerical garb.

But, scripture doesn't report that he smudged ashes on anyone's forehead or instructed anyone to wear sackcloth. Indeed, the only time he reportedly spoke of ashes or sackcloth was as a rebuke to the communities of the Galilean villages of Chorazin and Bethsaida which did not repent in response to his teachings.

Pretty serious stuff.

Look, I'm not saying anything or anyone is right or wrong, good or bad. I'm confessing my discomfort and ambivalence with this practice. Who am I to say how God may work the commuter crowd or patrons of coffee houses and folks on the streets in Chicago or St. Louis or Boston or LA?

God can work through the ashes of our mortality. God can also work through the ashes of old palms - whether they are distributed in fine cathedrals, humble country churches, gritty inner city parishes or on the platform of a commuter train station.

I'm far from a biblical literalist. I don't think it's helpful to take a contextual situation from antiquity and try to use it as an exact template for our post-modern world.  That's a bit like taking a Date Palm Tree and trying to get it to grow in the rugged soil of Vermont.

For me, it's not just about what Jesus said or didn't say. It's not about what he did or didn't do - might or might not have done.

I keep hearing Job's desolation. And, Mordecai's wailing. And, Daniel's pleading.

I just can't get the image of Tamar's ashes out of my head.


Bill said...

Ashes? They used to be more important to me than they are now. You’re right in suggesting that people wear them to announce to the world once a year that, Yes, they are Christian. To be fair, Jesus didn’t advocate publicizing how good a Jew you were but everything else they did, including dress, prayer practices, eating practices and even circumcision, did identify them as Jews. We walk around in a much larger world with many faiths and maybe people need that identification even though it’s only once a year.
The practice of wearing ashes is not a purely Jewish or Christian thing. People of many cultures have done it to proclaim their grief throughout time. It’s even expected in some circles.
It is, as you indicated, a declaration of our mortality but also of those who have passed on. I think for me, it is in this mind set that the ashes take on meaning. It always causes memories of my mom and cousin Bobby to bubble up.
The other thing that ashes bring to mind, is new life. Anybody familiar with the woods and forests, knows that out of the ashes of forest fires new growth springs up. It energizes the normal life cycle. The old growth had shielded the forest floor from the sun. With new growth, comes wildlife dependent on the cover provided by young trees and bushes.
For me, ashes have always meant two things; the end of one thing and the beginning of another.

Ana said...

I'm ambivalent about the whole ash thing, too, but I think perhaps the community is being widened by the imposition of ashes on the street. The people on the train who don't usually speak, the people who waited on line last year, looking for the ash people today, etc...
I'm also reminded of a Rumi quote that's also a beautiful song by Dale Zola: Come, come whoever you are; worshiper, wanderer, lover of leaving. Ours is not a caravan of despair, though you have broken your vows a thousand times, come, come again, come.

IT said...

I remember the impassioned discussion of this last year. Rather than putting them here, I've put my thoughts up at FoJ.

Anonymous said...

I still follow your blog. This is one of your best ever for me.

Bex said...

Jesus could have chosen to teach in the synagogue every Sabbath, and teach only His disciples the rest of the time, but He didn't. He was out in the world teaching anyone and everyone who showed up. Although the motives of some for doing so might not have been well considered or even honest, He offered all He had anyway.

Kate said...

My husband is a Presbyterian pastor who was among those that started Ashes to Go in St. Louis. I have witnessed the ritual on the city streets where very desperate and lost people wander. THAT is where the power of this practice is. Not just a drive thru for parishoners who can't or don't make it to the church service.

I have seen people who have never set foot in a church, weeping at the words prayed over them and the actual physical change come over them as they feel their sins lifted and replaced by God's grace. Drug addicts, prostitutes, and the homeless, sure. But also middle class people who are carrying burdens that the rituals of Ash Wednesday allow them to lay at the feet of the Lord.

I'm not sure the reasons the Anglican priest who has joined the service gives for her participation, but I know that spreading redemption to those who do not know it, is one of the key reasons the UCC, PCUSA, and Disciples pastors began in the first place.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

This is one place where we get to lovingly stand in disagreement, and that's cool.

I see your point on every single thing you mention. No argument whatsoever.

Where I take it is like this:

Ashes are a thing that do not require a priest to impose them. That is also a message to me--a message that we are supposed to be reaching out and touching each other in our mortality--scabs, wounds, and all. That what we do here matters.

I think it's a mistake for the person getting the ashes to think this just gets them out of going to church. So I see an opportunity for many wonderful conversations to emerge from this simple act of touch.

Who in your life do you need to reconcile things with?

What's in your world that needs changing?

How can you be a better steward of this planet and her finite resources?

Lots and lots of very poignant yet tiny entryways to some very deep places in a short period of time.

Maybe it can plant the seed to bring someone to the church...or to think about a broken relationship that can be repaired...or better use of God's good creation.

I think with the right attitude, "Ashes to go" can be a very good thing.

I think with a more superficial attitude, it can be a very damaging thing.

I'm good with it--as long as we treat the whole of the experience as an entryway to the deep places.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bill, Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with them. What do you think of bringing this symbolic element out on the streets, without prayers, without community?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ana - I think the hope is that the community is being widened, but I have this nagging sense that we're only feeding into the "rugged individualism" of this country which actually results in the kinds of heinous cuts to the federal budget that drastically removes services to the poor and needy because, well, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

That's my worst fear. My greatest hope is that we'll see the wonder of that Rumi quote.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - thanks. I'll go check it out and join you there.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JR - Thanks. I'm struggling with this, as you can see. I won't do it until and unless it comes from a place of authenticity and truth in me.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bex - Well, I hear your point, but I wonder about his motives. He seemed to be as critical of the established religion as he was of the Roman Empire. Perhaps that's why he went out to the streets, as a strong statement against institutional religion. Is that the message "Ashes To Go" gives? I'm just asking the question.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Kate. I guess I'd have to experience it in order to appreciate it. That may be the next step for me.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - See, that's really the point of my greatest discomfort. It's not about whether or not someone needs to be ordained in order to distribute ashes. You don't. That's pretty clear. But, how do you address the questions you raise without some kind of liturgy? Without some kind of wee little prayer before the imposition of the ashes? Without opportunity for a conversation with someone about what is burdening his/her heart? Is this just "spiritual fast food"? Do we want to give people something from "The Church of Burger King" or "The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church"?

I'm asking questions here is all.

Kate said...

FYI~ You keep mentioning using the ashes outside of context. I don't know how it is done other places, but here in St. Louis, the pastor has a little participatory mini-Ash Wednesday service based on the Book of Common Worship, so the ashes are not just brushed on. It usually takes about 15 minutes.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

BTW, if you want to join the conversation IT posted, go to the right side of my blog and click on Friends of Jake.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Actually, I think it's pretty marvelous that my comfort and your discomfort come from the exact same point.

I think those conversations can happen without a liturgy. Kate's post, at the very least, alludes to them.

I think about my own life--away from the church for 20+ years. I would not have heard a liturgical conversation. But I would have possibly heard a single heartfelt voice speaking to my heart.

It's kind of along the same lines as "why I'm the worst dressed person in my parish." I don't want anyone to ever grace our door and think they are not dressed well enough to be welcome. If they get a glimpse of me, I hope it would put them at ease.

I really haven't seen from what I read, "the absence of prayer." It brings up another thought: Is imposing the ashes, in and of itself, a form of prayer?

One of the key names in the Lead blog article today is Sara Miles, author of "Take This Bread." I think it's key to remember she came to the church by (horror of horrors!) sort of, um "cheating at communion." I believe that her getting the Sacraments even...well...outside the Canons...brought her to God.

I continue to marvel at how these holy things we revere change people's lives, even when they don't even realize that these ARE holy things.

Honestly, our disagreement about this topic is part of what's best about "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." I love it; and I love you for asking the questions!

lou.poulain said...

This is a wonderful posting, and I thank you for it. I share your ambivalence, but I also see value in bringing our "inside" to the "outside." My thoughts, for what they are worth...
Ashes taken out of the liturgical context, don't make tons of sense -- to folks who live within that liturgical context. A problem is that most folks don't, and they may not have ready access to a symbolic language to express ultimate yearnings and fears. I wonder if the smearing of ashes on a train platform or street corner can't at least provide something to ponder and reflect about.

Lou Poulain, from Sunnyvale CA, who is subtly aware of a gritty residue on his forehead that signifies his mortality...

Mary Beth said...

I always wash my ashes off as soon as I can.

Hutch said...

I have always love Ash Wednesday - well,since I engaged in a practice that did such a thing - as a "here I am, ashes and all, made new by Christ" kind of thing. But this morning, my thought was - wouldn't it be interesting if we wore our ashes everyday? And people saw them and knew that we were people they could come to for help, shelter, food, prayer?

Muthah+ said...

I blogged on this over at my place ( want to expand this taking things to the streets. It is in the conversation that the faith is now being lived out. It isn't in our congregations where the meaning is static. It IS in the street that faith must be lived--so why not bring the symbols of our faith to the streets?

JCF said...

What do you think of bringing this symbolic element out on the streets, without prayers, without community?

You don't think that the ashes *in themselves* can prompt prayers, community?

"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return": I think that's a pretty profound CALL to prayer, at the very least.

I think I take the "Gamaliel" approach on Ashes-to-Go. If it's of God...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey y'all. I'm loving this conversation b/c I don't hear anybody slamming anybody else's POV. Y'all are just saying what you think. Thank you for that and for the diversity of opinions expressed here.

So, here's where I am.

1. Jesus - and the rest of scripture, near as I can figure - used ashes as a serious symbol of grief, repentance, and humiliation. I fear we have appropriated a serious-as-a-heart-attack symbol and watered it down so it is pretty meaningless. Anybody can get it. No thinking or praying or even considering involved. (And it seems as if the practice is pretty much no prayer, just a smudge of ashes).

The word worship comes from the OE "worth-ship". It's about the value we assign to our relationship of prayer to God with each other. What does just smudging say about the value of our symbols and ritual?

It's like "love". I "love" hamburgers and I "love" my wife/husband/spouse/lover? Really? That just doesn't compute with me. Which is why....

2. Community is so important. I think a community gathered in prayer that receives ashes is my prime concern because . . .

3. We are a culture STARVED for ritual and symbol. I think the church can offer that as no other can, in our culture. So, just distributing ashes out of context - without prayer - seems pretty empty to me and . ..

4. I think it fosters the "rugged individualism" that breeds contempt for "the other" in our midst. Indeed, my worst fear is that we are, unwittingly, aiding and abetting the very environment that makes it easier to cut funding to the needy. And . . .

5. I think the church needs to spend more time in the streets and with the people. No argument from me on that one. But, it needs to be meaningful - not just "religious fast food". I LOVE the Common Cathedral in Boston. I LOVE "Mass on the Grass" where churches take their services to public places. (There's a church in NJ that has a 5 PM Sunday service on the beach - LOVE it.) We need to do more of that.

But, is just smudging ashes on someone's forehead at a Coffee Shop or Commuter Train Station really accomplishing that? I'm not so sure it does. I think it may make us all feel good, but so does a Twinkie, for about 5 minutes, if I'm really hungry. But, I haven't gotten anything of nutritional value. I've only gotten something that fills a hole temporarily. Which leads me to the importance of...

6. Education. Priests have really, really, really relinquished our role as Rabbi. We do not do catechism the way we used to - or need to. I'm not talking rote memory stuff. That's BS. I'm talking having ongoing educational stuff for 'seekers' as well as those who have been in the church so long they don't know what they don't know. You know?

So, if church folk - lay and ordained - were to gather small groups of people in the Coffee Shops, Train Stations and Streets, have a short explanation of what is going on, do a reading, say a prayer, then smudge - Wash, Rinse, Repeat - I think it might be okay.

I know I have done a Very Abbreviated Eucharist or Ash Wednesday Service or Palm Sunday Service in Nursing Homes and at Hospital bedsides, and in College Dorms, and it works well. But, as I read it, anyway, most of these folks are just doing "Ashes to Go". Sounds cool, but what are we really accomplishing?

That's my best shot y'all. Not trying to convince anyone. Just sayin' it - and askin' it - like I sees it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Actually, no, JCF. I don't think it's enough. I think, actually. But, I'm with you and Gamaliel on this one. I'm taking a 'wait-see' attitude.

IT said...

But, is just smudging ashes on someone's forehead at a Coffee Shop or Commuter Train Station really accomplishing that? I'm not so sure it does. I think it may make us all feel good, but so does a Twinkie, for about 5 minutes, if I'm really hungry.

But what if it's smudging a homeless person, who feels unloved and unwelcome in the context of more people, or someone hurt by the Institutional Church, etc etc. I think @Kate's comment above sums it up.

I guess I keep seeing NOT trying these kinds of radical steps as putting up barriers to see who's "good enough".

A hurting person isn't likely to come to an al fresco group worship. I can't think of anything more intimidating--talk about making someone KNOW they don't belong, they don't know the words, etc etc

You're going to have to find a way to reach them one on one.

So I'm not sure I understand how you see this contributing to rugged individualism and cuts to the poor. Letting a stranger touch you with ashes is pretty intimately a call to community, seems to me.

But of course I'm just a radical inclusivist ex-Roman Catholic. ;-)

Bex said...

I think the message Ashes to Go sends is pretty much what Kate and IT say. I see Jesus as always being willing to meet someone where they are. I remember a post you did about supporting striking hotel employees in LA. You and other clergy went to them, which I'm sure they never expected. I think we need to do more of that.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - I'm afraid we're talking apples and spaghetti here. I love the Common Cathedral. I'm sure, in addition to doing Eucharist in the Boston Common, I'm quite sure they distributed Ashes to the homeless. I hope every soup kitchen and shelter got a visit from an Episcopal Priest or Lay leader in the area today and had a moment of prayer before distribution of ashes.

With all due respect, IT, that's not who's at Commuter Train Stations and Coffee Shops.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bex - Yup, the action we took at GC at DisneyWorld was very important. After we walked a mile together and protested outside DisneyWorld together and prayed together, we offered laying on of hands. It was very powerful.

With all due respect, that's very different then standing on a train platform or in a coffee shop, smudging ashes on people's foreheads.

Now, if there were some sort of prayer - a reading from scripture, a few words of explanation before the smudge, I could find a place to begin to find acceptance.

Bill said...

Elizabeth writes: What do you think of bringing this symbolic element out on the streets, without prayers, without community?
I believe that the symbol is already out there, just not recognizable as ashes but most definitely in other forms. Isn’t wearing black after the death of a loved one the same symbol only in different form. Look at the wearing of arm bands or black ribbons tied over a policeman’s shield. When we fly the flag at half-mast, isn’t that a symbol of corporate grief. People will always need these outward expressions of grief. It’s part of the whole closure process that allows us to get on with our lives. What has happened is that our ashes have been modernized into other forms in our time and place. The only place you still find the original article is in the church which, as we all know, never made it into the twenty-first century.
You really have to hand it to the church. As a corporation they have managed to institutionalize some of the darndest thngs . They took Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and turned it into a once a year, multi -million dollar palm business. Then someone decided that you could only use last years left over palms for ashes. In effect, they made it a self-sustaining process. We live in an age where everything is lit by electricity; well everything except the church. Where would the candle industry be without the church – especially those four foot pascal candles. One place where the church dropped the ball is in franchise control. They should have taken a page from our Jewish brethren. You can’t do anything over there unless it’s kosher; and nothing is kosher without a fee going to the rabii.

walter said...

After a careful reading of the post and the numerous comments I cannot but agree with you. Ashes to Go even though at first reaction could look an avant-garde offering as it is offered in fact takes away the power of the liturgical moment. It is not by accident that you mention that in the Bible we cannot find appropriate references. There must be a prayer, a reading from the Bible, short reflections and then..If will be done in such way it could be done anywhere because any space will be made by the Liturgical Time a holy place. Thank you for facilitating the empowerment of my awareness of Scripture and Liturgical Time: Sorta Brilliant as usual (So, it's not about getting ashes just to get ashes and let everyone know that you went to church. It's about an outward and visible sign of your inward and spiritual grief, repentance and/or mortification or humiliation. It's about intention. It's about sincerity. And, authenticity in the Name of the One who keeps us centered and focused and truthful, Jesus The Christ.

Walter Vitale

MarkBrunson said...

Sounds cool, but what are we really accomplishing?

What does any liturgical act "accomplish?"

I wouldn't have taken you for a utilitarian, Elizabeth! :D

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mark - Liturgy, at its best, inspires and educates, comforts and disturbs, helps to reconcile people with God and each other and the world.

If that's being utilitarian, then guilty as charged ;~)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bill - LOL! Well said.

Lindy said...

I think that any space, and any time, can become holy. What I am curious about is, why Ash Wednesday? Why aren't these same people out there with the baptismal font and the Eucharistic table? When I put imposition of ashes in the context of other liturgical acts I have to wonder, why this particular act? Why not another? And it's that which makes me squirm in my chair and wonder if it has really been well thought through. I wish someone would address that.

IT said...

The people at the train station may not be physically homeless. But they sure may be spiritually homeless and equally lost.

I look around at the faces everyday-- the regulars with their power commuter bravado, the solitary ones some where deep inside themselves, the social ones wearing talkative masks-- and I often think an early morning commuter platform is full of secrets and pain. It's not a happy place.

Maybe it's because standing and waiting with nothing to do but think brings things to the surface. There are confessions between strangers and odd quests for absolution.

I think if a priest had shown up yesterday morning, s/he might well have started an ongoing conversation with a few.

Suzer said...

"But, is just smudging ashes on someone's forehead at a Coffee Shop or Commuter Train Station really accomplishing that? I'm not so sure it does. I think it may make us all feel good, but so does a Twinkie, for about 5 minutes, if I'm really hungry. But, I haven't gotten anything of nutritional value. I've only gotten something that fills a hole temporarily."

What a great conversation!

My two cents: Yes, perhaps you take the risk of an "Ashes to Go" moment which will be meaningless to some. But it will also be incredibly meaningFUL to some. And for that one lost sheep (hopefully more than one), I think bringing ashes to the street is an amazing and worthwhile ministry.

I know far too many people who will not darken the doors of a church, for many reasons. Some of the reasons is the liturgy itself. They find it distancing, only for the elite few who are already in the know. Heck - I was uncomfortable myself with some of the liturgy at our service last night. I find myself saying, "no! I just don't believe that!" There are parts of liturgy and Scripture that are so troublesome to me, that seem to be not at all what Jesus was about.

I have an image in my head of NYC after the World Trade Center came down. Everyone was covered with ash. Literally. And there was prayer. And there was weeping and sadness. I don't know why that sticks in my head when thinking about bringing ashes to the people on the street, but it does.

Our sense of "community" in the church has become so insular, so "us and them," even when we think we are truly reaching out and welcoming everyone. I think the risk of some people having a shallow experience versus the reward of others being brought closer to God on, of all places, a train station platform, is more than worth taking. I think it is in fact imperative that we start doing so. A minister imposing ashes may not know if that person has gotten something of value or not until long after the fact, if you ever know at all. How do we ever know what someone gets out of such an act, whether it is in a church setting or not?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lindy - You make part of my point. Why only Ash Wednesday? Why aren't we calling people to prayer - to community - in lots of other ways? And, that's my part of my fear, I guess - that we're just smudging people's foreheads without prayer or community. Thanks, Linday.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - Here's the thing: I know what you are saying and I understand. I think I would feel better about those who are "spiritually homeless" - many by strident choice - if they were actually engaged in conversation by those distributing ashes. Actually engaged to form some form of prayerful community. To take more than a few seconds to engage in a holy, prayerful moment. To make their relationship with God and each other more of a priority.

Does that make sense?

I want more for God's people than "Ashes to Go". Ultimately, I think that shortchanges them and the church.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Suzer - I understand your point from a philosophical POV. I know that the babies to whom I give communion don't "know" what has happened. I can't measure the value of it. But, I do note that something happens when I put myself into something rather than having it just delivered to me. I think that's the psychology of diet centers and the cost of diet food is part of why it works.

That's not the best analogy but I hope you understand where I'm going with this. Bottom line: I've been thinking about this for two years and I think I'm going to need more time to think this through. I'm clear about this much: If I were to do this, it would have to involve some semblance of relationship and some nuance of community. I know without a doubt that I couldn't just stand on a train platform and smudge "Ashes On The Go" without conversation or prayer. That would not honor the church, the ritual or the person.

I guess I'm still more moved by Tamar's ashes than I care to admit.

Bex said...

Want a prayer to say before imposing ashes? Why don't we write one? Give us some guidelines and the commentators here that choose to do so can give it a try.

IT said...

Yes I see. Not so much where or who but how.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

A report from the front from an assistant who accompanied his/her rector at a commuter train platform:

Well, it was AWFUL. I felt like I was in a liturgical peep show. No time for prayer. No time for even polite conversation. Just, "Remember you are dust . . ." I'm thinking most of them were RCs who didn't have time to get to church. They just wanted "proof" that they had been to Mass - but they hadn't. I felt like I was complicit in a big lie.

The worst was that my rector insisted that we hand out pamphlets that gave all the dates and times for our Lenten Series.

I went home and took a shower."

So, okay. Maybe this priest wrote to me b/c s/he knew there would be a receptive audience.

I'm hoping there were other - many, many more - clergy and laity who were not in that circumstance.

To repeat: I'm not opposed to the practice - IF it involves some semblance of community and some prayer. And IF it were part of an overall effort to bring other liturgies and rituals to the "public square".

That's just ME. I would never stop anyone from participating in "Ashes to Go". Neither do I judge them. I'm just saying I couldn't do it unless the above conditions were part of the understanding.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bex - I'd love that. Really. Guidelines? Hmmm. . . .

1. The clergy/laity would time the distribution in between trains.

2. The officiant would gather a small community together and say a few words about Ash Wednesday and why we are bringing ashes to the commuter train station.

3. The officiant would say a short prayer. Actually, something along the lines of the collect for Ash Wednesday would be fine.

4. Then, would follow the distribution of ashes. People leave, board the train. NEXT . . .

Does that make sense?

If this happened in a coffee shop (which, I can't image a coffee shop owner allowing it), I would follow the same sort of outline.

If this were in a nursing home/extended care facility, I would take a wee bit more time. Maybe do the gospel reading and explain it in terms of repentance and/or grief. I would do the Litany of Penitence or something similar to it. This is what I've done in the past. I also offer opportunity for private confession.

MarkBrunson said...

Mark - Liturgy, at its best, inspires and educates, comforts and disturbs, helps to reconcile people with God and each other and the world.

I suppose, then, I'm not sure what it is about the imposition of ashes that doesn't do that.

Bex said...

Thanks for the guidelines. I'll give it a try...hope some of the others here do too.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mark - which is exactly why I have such a problem with a symbol being "distributed" out of liturgical/prayerful/community context. Thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Bex. Give 'er a go, y'all.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sr. Joan has an interesting article about Lent that resonates deeply with me:

MarkBrunson said...

Ah, I see. I just wasn't getting it!

Sorry, Elizabeth. I was reading through a haze of other duties and responsibilities and thought you were objecting to the whole thing.

No. I'm not for the trendy-fication of a part of the "physical story-telling." For one thing, it's rather silly, out of context.

I apologize.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

No problem, Mark.

John said...

I started to do Ashes to Go at Hopkins in 2004. I didn't give it a lot of thought, I knew that there were lots of folks unable to come to me-staff and patients. The second year, my super looked rather askance on the notionbut since I knew that I was more of a liturgy Nazi than the old TEC priest, I didn't care.
This year I announced that I would be in one of the dining halls/campus center. I made more of an effort to look deep into their eyes and while I could not see into their souls, it was definitely an important outreach to them. I am not sure of the end result for them than I am for me. But I'll do it again. Gladly.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

John - I really think it's the connection we make with people - calling them to prayer and community - that makes the difference.

And, that Ash Wednesday is not the only "public practice of ministry". Authenticity and integrity are at risk.