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Friday, February 19, 2010

I don't get it

I've been having conversations with some of my friends and clergy colleagues about Ash Wednesday.

This article in the Chicago Tribune has really been the catalyst for discussing the practice of going to public places - train stations, town squares - and simply imposing ashes on foreheads apart from any liturgy or ritual.

I don't get it.

I hear the arguments, but I still don't get it.

Some think this is Very Cool - bringing the church into the world with a powerful symbolic act. No judgment. No commitment. A wonderful service for those who live Very Busy Lives and can't come to church on Ash Wednesday.

Well, okay. I hear that, but what do we think we're doing, really?

It won't come as a surprise to anyone to hear me say that, as a priest, I like the whole Magila - the silence, the lessons, the psalms, the meditation, the Litany, and the Eucharist - the gathering of the whole community invited to make a 'Holy Lent.'

And, I understand the Very Busy Lives that people lead. At St. Paul's, we have three services to accommodate that reality.

There's one at 7 AM, with a special emphasis on children and families, so they can be part of the ritual and leave before communion to get to school on time. We even provide bagels and juice in the foyer on their way out the door.

There's also one at 12 noon which is a very simple service. People are told that they can leave at the Peace if they need to get back to work.

The 7 PM service is the whole Magila - the choir is there leading us in beautiful music. I find that service most inspiring. It's also the best attended.

I know. Not everyone can make any of those service. I get it.

I agree that there's something Really Wonderful about having a public service - bringing the word of truth about our mortality into a world which is obsessed with 'forever young and beautiful' and a word of penitence and fasting into a culture broken by greed and avarice.

The article from Chicago says that "The idea was to bring the gospel to where people actually live and work."

Are we doing that, really? What are we doing when we only bring the symbol and not the ritual, much less saying a mumbling word about the gospel?

I don't mean that we have to do the ENTIRE ritual. Perhaps a brief invitation, a time for silent reflection and confession, maybe even a bit of a psalm, and then the imposition of ashes.

We humans are creatures of ritual. We have become creatures of many cultural rituals. The daily morning ride on the Metro train is but one of them for many people. This ritual even gives them an identity. We call them "The Commuters".

The problem, at least to my eyes which are admittedly weary after almost 25 years of tending to the people of God who are world-weary, is that cultural rituals and symbols are devoid of any deeper, spiritual meaning.

There is such hunger in the world for deeper, spiritual meaning. Indeed, some people are so famished, so parched, that the ear of a pastoral heart cannot but hear the plaintiff cry of their souls cry out for sustenance and nourishment.

Is that what we're doing when we stand at a train platform or at a city square and simply impose ashes? Are we feeding their souls or contributing to the cultural addiction to feast on the Bread of Anxiety?

Are we nourishing their spirituality or sustaining the new 'consumer' religion with a 'drive through' spiritual fast food?

I don't know.

It is clear that I have my obvious bias, but I am willing to hear the argument to the contrary. So far, what I have heard is "well, you never know how you're going to touch a person."

That's not an unfamiliar argument which finds lots of application around the church in a variety of settings and ways. I gotta tell ya, that always makes me uncomfortable. Of course, it's true. But that's not the point, is it? Or, is it?

Are we bringing "the gospel" into the world, or just participating in a quasi-liturgical "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show"?

Are we any better than those annoying 'street evangelists' who stand on the corner and yell bible verses into a microphone or bullhorn as evidence that we ought to 'repent because the rapture is coming'?

Are we not doing EXACTLY what Jesus tells us not to do in Matthew 6:5
"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward."

6:6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Yes, yes. I hear the argument that we seem to be doing that in church, too, when we leave with a big old black smudge on our foreheads.

My predecessor always sternly warned people to get rid of the smudge before going out of the church. That practice continues, and I've neither encouraged nor discouraged it. I think people need to take responsibility for their own symbols.

But, I'm not just talking about smudging ashes on people's foreheads - either in church or on a commuter platform. I don't think that's what Jesus is talking about, either.

What I hear Jesus saying is that the practice of piety without being connected to meaning is spiritually bankrupt - it "has its own reward" which is not necessarily rewarding to the soul.

Shouldn't we at least attempt to connect some form of ritual with the symbolic act?

I don't know. What do you think?

I don't get it.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

I keep my smudge on. Now, I always go in the evening so it is not like I have to walk around all day with it, but part of my post-Ash Wednesday ritual is to go to the store afterwards and see how long it takes before someone says, "hey, you got dirt on your face."

I simply answer, "Oh, that's my ashes from going to Ash Wednesday services at church." End of comment, unless it invites more comment.

Once in a while someone who casually knows me might go, "I didn't know you were Catholic." Standard answer: "I'm Catholic Light--I'm Episcopalian. We do the ash thing too."

I don't see it so much as "practicing piety" as I do two other things:

1. I walk around this world every day with a smudge on my head. It's called my sinful nature. Mostly, I try to hide it. It's probably good for me one day a year to be mindful of the fact I am now "exposed" and can't do it. What would I do differently in my life if every day of my life, my "smudge" were viewable? It's a wonderful question to ponder.

2. I like to go home and "sleep in my smudge." I generally don't wash it off until the next morning. It prompts me to think about things I normally wouldn't think about.

As I said on the FB link, I think the photo shoot of the story doesn't do the Tribune story justice. What exactly did his sign say? What were his conversations like with the people? I am curious. I sense that I may well have not stayed unchurched for 20+ years had the right encounter like this crossed my path. At least, I wonder.

This year, I got to help impose ashes at my church. My priest associate asked me a Very Loaded Question, of which I'm still pondering: "How did it feel to be on the other side of the ashes?"

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Two responses:

1. I have stopped describing TEC as 'Catholic Light'. Makes our status sound diminished. Just ain't gonna do that any more. I say, "I'm an Episcopalian." And leave the obvious to invite further questions.

2. I LOVE the question posed by your priest. It's a great meditation.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, and a third: You're right, Kirke. We don't know what the sign said or what the priest said. I hope it was more than just the imposition of ashes, which is what I see our RC brothers doing at the train station here.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martha said...

I have 2 very different responses to this practice. The first is that I don't subscribe to the "drive thru" church model. I agree that when we adapt ourselves to the culture which says that people don't have time to come to church, that we diminish what spiritual practice and spiritual community are all about. On the other hand, if the imposition of ashes is meant not to be a substitute "quickie" service for the faithful, but rather a statement to the world - meant to raise consciousness, then I can see the value. Kind of like religious performance art - meant to capture attention and make people think. I doubt, however, that the folks in Chicago were thinking of it in those terms.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

It's usually damp enough where I live, and cold enough that I need to wear a hat, that the smudge wipes off. Also, I work with a multicultural group of students and have a desire to not freak out the ones who may have had any number of experience with Christendom. Often, however, students will ask me about my faith and my experiences - and then we have a conversation. But I let them initiate it.

I saw the piece on taking Ash Wednesday to commuters and initially liked the idea of Takin' It to the Streets, so to speak. I spent a month traveling with some Brazilian seminarians and their Bishop as they took the Eucharist to people in camps for the landless, farms, and homes -- and that has planted the idea that we don't need the Temple for our salvation. Even before that, the act of visiting parish shut ins at home helped me to see beyond my tidy little fantasies of playing church.

That said, the ashes are just one part of the ritual. We don't lack for reminders of our own mortality. One thing that struck me on Wednesday receiving my ashes is that the Eucharist that follows reminds us of our connection to the Great Story and membership in the Body. To me, that membership is what gives my time on earth purpose and meaning.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

FWIW, Elizabeth, I had exactly the same reaction. Talk about "Catholic lite"!!!!

I know how hard it can be to fit time into one's schedule for God--and I'm married to a priest! But the truth is that ALL relationships require an investment of time. We would be appalled at the notion that one could have a good marriage or be a good parent by doing a "drive-by" at the train station. How is this any different?

And if that sounds judgmental, I truly don't mean it to be. I think the priest was motivated by a good impulse--and the looks of the faces of some of those people in the newspaper photos really touched me. They look weary and HUNGRY. We need to give them real food, not the junk food of a drive-by religion.

And that is something I am mulling. I think that the most fertile ground for TEC is among the "unchurched" (a term I loathe, but will use for lack of a better one at the moment). I'm thinking a lot these days about "evangelism"--what it is and how to do it faithfully and in a way that doesn't violate my sense (or anyone else's) of privacy and sacredness. I have a backlog of blog-posts-in-the-making, and when I get around to writing that one, I hope you will come over and give me your .02.


P.S. I never have to worry about the smudge-on-the-forehead dilemma. Bangs do have their uses... ;-)

RevMama said...

I think for people steeped in a tradition of Ash Wednesday and its meaning *and* unable to make it to church, it might be a wonderful thing to be able to receive the ashes from someone on the street. But that is because they know the tradition and the meaning of the symbol. For some who aren't part of a tradition that observes Ash Wednesday but with some vague idea of what the ashes mean, it might be a call to repentance or even a call to return to God (but that is what repentance is all about, isn't it?) For some others, it might be only a cool thing to do.

But I agree with you, Elizabeth. It's very hard to administer a symbol outside of its context of meaning.

And what was on that sign anyway?

Elaine C. said...

Last year at the Cathedral where I was working, as our Ash Wednesday liturgy was ending, a handful of individuals wandered in off the busy downtown streets and asked to be smudged. I acquiesced, & as they quickly left, wondered why ... reading the of ashes for commuters story, I was also curious with questions like yours. I saw that a couple other Episcopal clergy were at train stations doing the same thing. I guess it is time to ask the folks who were doing it why ...

Bruce said...

Interesting. Even Fr Dan Martins on the HOBD list serve agrees! Simply for sartorial reasons, I'd feel highly uncomfortable standing at the rail platform in a chasuble. Might look a tad bit C-R-A-Z-Y. The clerk at the gas station the other evening said to me, "We're seeing a lot of that today," referring to my smudge.

Ann said...

The priests who took the ashes to the train station and other places tell the story at Episcopal Cafe´ today. Also in typical Anglican fashion - pun intended - the first comments are about vestments. LOL

Brother David said...

I blew that sign up as big as possible before it pixelated and could not read what it said clearly. But it did not appear to actually be speaking of Ash Wednesday as much as it was information about the mission of the parish "Transfiguration - A place to grow great children" But the article pointed out that the acolyte had pamphlets for folks about Ash Wednesday.

If we go to this level of "taking it to the streets" then how about communion stations at malls and transit centers for the folks whose busy lives keep them from Eucharist? I realize that there is a vast difference in taking a ritual act to the people, such as the Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes, and that of a sacrament, but once the line becomes hazy, who will know where it actually is. At what point do we then become guilty of throwing spiritual Twinkies or Ding Dongs to the masses? When are we then nourishing them with nutritionless food?

I understand the points that folks make regarding perhaps providing the invitation or the point of contact that brings one in and changes a life. But, for example, I am not in favor of communing the unbaptised. I think that we have truly lost something by having streamlined the journey to membership that we no longer actually ask anything of folks at all. And part of it is out of fear of rejection. What if it is too hard for them and they go away? Jesus said, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light," but it proved to burdensome for the young wealthy leader and he did just what we fear, he went away, sad that it required too much of him.

WV = pringl
More nutritionless nutrition!

June Butler said...

I'll repeat what I said at The Lead, which is perhaps not what you want, Elizabeth, because it's just what I think, not an argument to convince.

I think "ashes on the go" is a lovely idea. Truly, I believe we'll be doing church like that more often. With the numbers of people who attend religious services dimishing, if the people don't come, then perhaps we should go to the people. Sort of like Jesus.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I am probably going to blog on the Very Loaded Question, but I am still thinking on it. That's the kind of question that takes at least three days to digest! Stay tuned.

Malcolm+ said...

Later in that FB link thread there was another link about an ecumenical initiative in St. Louis(?) including a video of one such imposition of ashes - about a three minute liturgy.

My sense is that that sort of thing would come close to addressing your very legitimate concerns.

Ann said...

The sign read: ASH WEDNESDAY
We invite you in the name of the Church to the observance of a holy Lent, by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; by reading and meditating on God's holy Word.
Adapted from The Book of Common Prayer p. 265.

the key words are in Bold

at the bottom - the church name and address and web site.

Ann said...

Seems to me that wanting to have ashes and wearing them all day -- is amazing -- it is a sort of crazy thing to do anyway -- why not go crazy on the streets and offer this to everyone who wants it? Guess I don't think it needs to be hidden in church for those who measure up to our attendance standards - nor do I think Jesus needs protection by any of us.

IT said...

I agree with Mimi, and note the juxtaposition with Doxy's comment noticing the hunger in people's eyes.

Perhaps I'm sensitized, being on the fringes of faith as I am, but I think there is really a huge place for the church in meeting people where they are. Taking the step (if so inclined) to get "ashed" at the station is a little step, but much easier to take than the BIG step of finding a church to go into. It's a start, to help assuage a hunger.

In case y'all haven't noticed, not all churches are welcoming to strangers. It can be very intimidating to non-churchy people, particularly if they lack any familiarity with the practices or have been away a long time.

And it's not a slippery slope to grab-and-go Communion. It's ashes, once a year, brought to them in hopes they find meaning and maybe a little nudge to take a new step.As the story at The Lead said, people get the meaning. And for that reason, of sending the church into the world, I'm all in favor of the chasuble too!

Polls tell us Americans long for spirituality even as they flee organized religion. For too many, the face of religion is rules, exclusion, and bigotry. It seems to me that anything getting progressive and welcoming faith groups out there to connect with people is A Good Thing.

If you read FoJ you'll see a long post and good comments about a talk I went to by Brian McLaren. One thing he said that resonated for me (and for my BP, thinking of the kids) is, "we've become so good at preserving our grandfather's church that we've made church unwelcoming to our children" with the result that the kids are lost. You have to go to where they are to get them back.

(I can't believe I'm becoming a recruiter for the Episcopal church.... maybe it's your WASPy English heritage but you folks tend to hide your light under a bushel .... so when do I get my toaster?)

June Butler said...

If we go to this level of "taking it to the streets" then how about communion stations at malls and transit centers for the folks whose busy lives keep them from Eucharist?

Dah-veed, as I see it, the ashes ceremony differs from the Eucharist. I would not recommend handing out Communion on the streets divorced from the liturgy, but I would consider taking the liturgy of the Eucharist to the streets where the people are. That has been done and is probably now being done and will probably be done more often as the churches empty in our post-Christian era.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Wish I had more time to really enter this discussion but that may be just as well as it forces me to just listen. Great discussion, y'all.

One quick observation: It is not judgmental to insist on basic minimum standards. Like, for example, you should know something about why ashes are being imposed and why the church begins the Season of Lent with this powerful symbol BEFORE you have them imposed on your forehead. I think we should respect ourselves and other people enough to make sure there is at least this basic minimum standard.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Personally, I think IT should get a 42-inch flat screen television....

Paul said...

When I was a Baptist teenager I went to nearby Catholic churches to get ashes on Ash Wednesday. Not your average Baptist teenager, I knew what the ashes meant and it was very meaningful for me. (A crypto-Catholic even then.)

I believe most people availing themselves of ashes in public places brought background knowledge and associations with them. I agree with those who think folks generally have more than enough awareness of their sinfulness and need. Accepting ashes in public places takes an act of faith. If, for some, it is only outward show or superstition, the dictum remains: abusus non tollit usum (the abuse does not negate the use).

JimB said...

Some years ago, my elder son was working the drive in window at a fast food restaurant on Ash Wednesday. He had been to an early service and had his cross of ashes. Several time people drove up, saw him, paid for their orders, left the food and went off to grab the kids and get to church. Did any of them think about their relationship with the faith communities they came from and act on their reflections? I dunno but I know they got a jolt and maybe that is enough.

I liked the platform thing (not just cause it was in our diocese) because it reminded folks that we are out here, calling them. And I like seeing people including the vice-president looking like they actually are devout about something because it says we are here and have perhaps something to say.

If a half dozen people think, and one acts, isn't that enough?


Ann said...

Yes IT needs to win more than a toaster. Elizabeth - do you require children to know why before receiving communion in the church you serve?

June Butler said...

I nominate IT as the best "Christian" amongst us. (Don't panic, IT! Note the scare quotes.) ;-)

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, and I am thinking about how "taking lots of churchy things to the streets" might have shortened my 20+ years in the wilderness.

I normally don't play "what if"--my faith journey is what it is, and I'm grateful for every inch of it--but I am playing "I wonder" here...

Some of you all know my story. I left the LCMS because of their disdain for women's ordination, well, women anything. By that time I was living in Columbia, MO--college town USA--and I went to the ELCA church a few times but it felt too...well...suburban. I was having a hard enough time moving from "blue collar world" to "white collar world." There was a pretty high titer of minivans in the ELCA church parking lot and women with nice clothes and perfect bangs. They didn't look too inviting about someone who showed up ten minutes after waking up wearing beach shorts and flip flops, or someone who wears rubber farm boots on snowy days.

I had not really thought about the Episcopalians back then. I had a mentor who sort of tried to interest me in them, but for some reason, as much as I believed what he told me about the pathology world, I didn't quite have the trust to venture into the church world.

But this story has made me wonder...

Would an Episcopal priest being just a little crazy, bringing a piece of church to the streets, in a chasuble, have caught my eye?

I think the answer is, "it might well have." I have to admit, I do like "unabashedly odd."

It might have changed my faith journey. I won't say "for the better" but I'll say, "on a more efficient time line."

I think it's great we're discussing the details in such a friendly fashion. Because it does make me ponder a More Serious Question--would it catch other eyes, too?

IT said...

Doxy, LOL! Where do I sign up?

Elizabeth, I don't think anyone would want a black smudge on their forehead if they didn't get the basics. Really, that's got to be one of the most culturally distinct markers of a particular form of Christianity.

"dust thou art, and to dust thou shall return" -- don't see how they could NOT get it.

W/V "spect"
I spect this will be discussed for some time

David@Montreal said...

Unfortunately this story reminds me of an 'incident' over a year ago, where the several Anglican bishops of Toronto 'dressed up' in their finest, including copes and mitres and stood outside Union Station handing out business cards- inviting people to check out their local church of whatever denomination.

Visiting Toronto shorly after, I was surprised at how problematic this was for many of the people at a dinner party. Most of the Anglicans present (a minority) felt it 'made light' 'made an irrelevant statement' or even mocked the best of our Church. One woman, a wonderful feminist academic actually stopped one of the suffrigans and asked if that was the best they could do, to 'play dress-up.'

A gay friend, who it turns out is a former victim of clergy abuse who came across 'the scene' actually had to go back into the station to get over the shock and the memories it evoked for him before going on with his day- via another exit.

The other reason I 'don't get' initiatives like this is our of a concern that they may reduce Ash Wednesday to little more than magical thinking or even shaminism. What is concretely different in the hearts and minds of those individuals as they walk away wearing their 'instant ashes'?

Rushing on their way to the office and their busy day, I'm afraid at best it might be another experience 'consumed' with the usual momentary satisfaction.

And then there's also the message we're sending to those who did, or who will turn up for the Ash Wednesday liturgy when they realize it can be as 'quick and easy' as a thrity second stop of on the train platform.

IT said...

I don't agree with you (obviously). Those people who get the ashes -- some might see it as the easy button. But for a number of others, its a reconnection. Why is it a bad thing?

Why do you guys want to make it so hard to bring people back in? It's very prodigal son-ish. There's a certain flavor here of the older brother who's pissed at the fatted calf being killed for the bad spoiled baby of the family.

It doesn't seem fair if anyone gets it for "easy". but getting ashes, and participating in the whole liturgy, are two things, right? There's more to the liturgy than the ashes, surely. You get a lot more out of it than the ashes. For some people, the ashes may be start.

I'm really puzzled at the rule-keepers here.

But then, I'm not one of you, so pehaps that's not surprising.

MarkBrunson said...

If it's not of God, then it will fail, if it is, we can't stop it; which is to say, I don't know how I feel about it, but not so strongly against it I'd complain.

Now, if they're holding people down and smudging 'em, that's different.

Continuing what Kirk and Elizabeth were both saying:

I don't say Catholic-light, either, but here the question tends to be "Are you a Christian?" by which they usually mean some sort of Baptist. I reply, "It depends who you ask . . . " and then tell them how conservative Christians abuse the term and it's only up to God to decide.

wv: buytings - it's what you go to da store to do!

Lisa Palmer said...

Lots to think about...but what first came to mind was artist David Best's "Chapel of the Laborer".

Not everyone has the means or time to attend church on Ash Wednesday, and as a laid-off teacher in a temporary position, I worked from 13 hours that day. I was saddened that there was no longer an early morning service at church that I could attend. I wonder how many people lack transportation or time to attend?
But I do believe in sacred space, just wondering how we can create it and make it accessible?

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Why do you guys want to make it so hard to bring people back in? It's very prodigal son-ish. There's a certain flavor here of the older brother who's pissed at the fatted calf being killed for the bad spoiled baby of the family.

If this is what you are hearing, IT, I suggest you are off-base. You might get that at those "other blogs," but I would be astonished to find that attitude here.

What worries ME is the fact that people are hungry and we might be giving them Snickers bars rather than a healthy meal.

And I also worry about the pressures to jettison what makes us church--liturgy, music, etc.

Last week, klady wrote a beautiful post about music and liturgy in the Episcopal Church, and the pressure she has seen on churches to move away from our traditions in an attempt to get new members.

Does offering ashes on the train platform devalue the liturgy (and the community) in an attempt to do outreach? Some of us fear that it does.

(Ironically, I will note that klady is arguing strenuously for your position on this at another site, IT. I'm surprised she doesn't see the connection---her blog post was the first thing I thought of when I read the initial article about Fr. Hensley!)

Finally, I find it...amusing...that people claim to be too busy to go to church on Ash Wednesday, but the atheist among us (the one with the unholy commute) can find the time to engage in community worship of a God she doesn't believe in. ;-)


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you all for leaving your comments. Obviously, this hit more than a few nerves.

Doxy pretty much summed up my feelings about those of you who see nothing wrong. It's not that it's wrong, necessarily - just that it raises lots of concerns.

For example - to Ann's point about children. I give communion to infants as soon as their parents allow it. But, I do explain to the parents and, eventually, to the child, just what we are doing and why. I also have Instructed Eucharists with Confirmation Class as well as newcomers.

And, let me point out the obvious: The imposition of ashes is not the same as the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist.

I think people are in search of meaning in their lives. I don't think providing a symbol outside of the context of ritual provides that meaning. It's as empty as all the other cultural rituals we keep.

I don't want to keep people FROM church. I want them to know WHY it's important. I don't thing the random imposition of ashes on a train platform does that.

I wouldn't do it, but I certainly wouldn't stop others from doing it.

Well, I wouldn't do it without some ritual - some prayers - something n which to put it into context.

OCICBW. That's just me.

Thanks again for a great discussion.

Ann said...

I am with IT here - connection is the first step and I believe we have to go out to where people are to make it. Same with music -- I am offended by the holier than thou attitude about music -- people need to start somewhere -- if they have never experienced anything else -- have to start there before offering the more complex. I started reading with comic books but we make a mistake if we think people stay in one place just because they start there. I love to read, I love chant and cantatas and the whole drill - but I started with Jesus Loves Me This I Know.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ann, I understand your point. For me, it's not about being "holier than thou" and it's not about not meeting people where they are. It's about deeper meaning which the world is most hungry for.

Providing a symbolic act outside of ANY ritual is like giving a crumb to a hungry person and walking away. Providing the symbol within the context of prayer and ritual - SOMETHING, ANYTHING - is not only giving them a crumb, it's showing them where to get bread.

Kirke has just posted a wonderful reflection on her first experience of imposing ashes. I think she does a fine job of describing what I'm trying to say.

Read it here:

June Butler said...

But then, I'm not one of you, so pehaps that's not surprising.

IT, it depends upon what you mean by one of us. :-)

I just wonder how you get people to the deeper meaning if they don't go to church in the first place. I see giving ashes at the train station as an outreach. As to what the symbol means to the folks in the street who step up to receive, just ask the people in church what the Eucharist means to them, and you may find that you get as great a variety of answers as from the people on the street receiving ashes.

IT said...

I don't think you folks MEAN to be rule-bound Doxy, of course not! I'm just saying that there's kind of a whiff of that which you may not be aware of.

BP and I had a long talk about this last night. She's of mixed views but tends to come down on your side. (I love the fact that she and I can discuss and disagree!)

Incidentally, I would have been happy to go to Mass with BP on Tuesday night, but she had to go without me. I had a late class that night and got home late. If that had been on Wednesday instead, there would have been no way for me to go to a service with her for Ash Weds. Not everyone has a choice in these matters.

Bex said...

There is a video on the Diocese of Missouri website (sorry don't know how to link) of an Episcopal priest and a UCC minister doing "ashes to go" last year in St. Louis. They do read psalms and prayers, so people "get" what is happening if they're not familiar with the imposition of ashes. Some clergy offer leaflets that explain the ritual. My guess is that most who receive the ashes do know what's happening and are glad to have the opportunity. Who knows? They might show up at church next year...or sooner. There's also the angle of it's up to you whether or not to wash off the ashes, but if you don't, it might start some interesting discussions, especially if you received them at the train station or on the corner.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

IT--Dear Friend and I do the same thing. It's a blessing, isn't it? (Although our disagreements are a little strange--we almost always agree on "the answer," but we have strong disagreements on how to arrive at it! ;-)

It has occurred to me that there appears to be a very strong catholic v. protestant split in this dialogue. (I use the lowercase on purpose.)

Those of us on the catholic side are appealing to the power of the liturgy and the importance of community. The more protestant focus is on bringing the Gospel into the world and capturing people's attention.

And that is where the Anglican tradition of the Via Media is so important. It is NOT an "either-or" choice...or at least shouldn't be. It is a "both-and" thing.

The important thing to my mind is to hold both things in tension with one another. If we don't hold on to what it is that makes us church (and by that, I mean The Episcopal Church), then we become irrelevant. We might as well close up shop and go join the megachurch (or the Roman Catholic Church) down the street.

But if we don't go out into the world, we become irrelevant as well--a social club for people who don't like the Pope but like processions, candles, and music that (supposedly) no one except rich WASPs like.

I have enjoyed this discussion very much, because it has caused me to question my initial reaction, which was negative, though not strongly so.

I agree with Bex and others who noted that most people who would avail themselves of ashes in that situation are Christians who just may not have time to go to church---or who have left the church but long for some connection with the Transcendent. I think meeting that need is not a bad thing at all---I just don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

At the end of the day, Mark Brunson is right. If this is of God, it will prosper. I hope it does--and I hope that those people with the hungry faces will wake up Sunday morning and decide to take a risk and join the community for worship.


Malcolm+ said...

One aspect of this, I think, has to do with christendom / post-christendom.

A generation ago, when most people were (at least nominally) affiliated with some religious denomination, this really would have been drive-through cheap grace.

In this generation, where people are more likely to have a vague hereditary connection - or no connection at all - to the community of faith, it has the potential to be a gentle sermon to get the attention of those who would never think of Ash Wednesday at all - and even if they did, would not think of attending worship as an option.

Of course, for that "audience," all the more important the puiblicly offered abbreviated ritual include enough context that the ritual act makes sense.

As I said on Dan Martins's blog (ironic to find you and he on the same side) I like the idea, but the execution needs work.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I like the common ground Via Media bent this conversation is taking. When Dan Martin and I agree on something, you know the Holy Spirit is at work.

klady said...

This is fascinating. Not only is there a split among a group of people who agree about so many other things, and an amiable split in IT's household, there also appears (to some, at least) to be a split in my own thinking. Doxy quotes me from my blog defending traditional liturgy and music and later has discovered that I took the other road with respect to the Ashes Controversy in my comments at The Lead.

Well, I stand by my foolish inconsistencies. As far as I'm concerned, it's a matter of apples and oranges - ashes vs. Holy Communion; outside church reaching everyone, no questions asked, in the town square vs. inside church with some Rules of the Road. I "get" the anti-argument, but I find it much more compelling in the context of "Open Communion," though even there I'm not entirely convinced. I really think that study and understanding should generally come afterwards, as infant baptism (however illogical it may be), and often Communion both precede confirmation, and confirmation, especially as a tween or teen, often precedes anything close mature understanding (but not necessarily - sometimes the understanding of the very young child taking Communion or the teen confirming membership is greater than that we think we have obtained later by careful study and much thought and even prayer).

My real beef with all this, and much that goes on in church, is that people in the church are often very far removed in their own minds, emotions, and experience from the reality of the unchurched or infrequent or not so "serious" attenders. Those outside the church are perceived to be ignorant, lazy, misguided, or simply woefully uninformed. Evangelists see themselves as mothers or fathers or even kind aunts and uncles who are going to bring the little children in, or the lambs back to the flock, by whatever they think will do the trick. I respect and admire the determination, the creativity, and the commitment to what often seems like a losing enterprise. But in the end, it is difficult for any of us, lay or clergy, to think and act much beyond our own experience, and we need to treat others with respect, not dismissal, and not presume we are the all-knowing adults who always know best.

Yes, we may learn and maybe even experiment or tolerate different ways and sincerely want to be open, but in the end it is very difficult to accept - let alone gracefully - that there may be many people who are not drawn at all to what we are drawn to deep in our hearts, and minds, and souls, and that there is nothing we can really do to be sure to impress others on the outside other than to love them. With love may come varying degrees of participation, enjoyment, and commitment to the practices of a particular religious community - or a maybe just a friendly salute and goodbye, for awhile or longer.

Although this whole kerfuffle over ashes is funny in many ways, it pricks some serious concerns among us all, which, I think in all fairness, have little or nothing to do with whatever harm or benefit may come from people standing in train stations smudging others' foreheads. But, thankfully, I've run out of space here to speculate what those concerns might be.

David@Montreal said...

WOW I obviously did a less than skillful job of expressing myself if I can be mistaken for 'one of you guys''the older brother who's pissed' and a 'rule-keeper' when what I was trying for was a consideration of 'meaning' and 'significance'

IT thanks for this powerful reminder of my own clumsiness, I'll just have to try better .

Mary-Cauliflower said...

For me it's not one versus the other.

This year I attended the Ash Wednesday morning Eucharist in the chapel of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. It was a beautiful liturgy in a wonderful setting, with an inspiring address by Brother Geoffrey Tristam. (You can find it at But not everyone has that luxury. There are many devout people who work in hospitals, fire departments, 24-hour establishments of every description, or who are trapped in commitments they just can't rearrange. (Or perhaps they feel so trapped they can't see a way out - which is a pretty acute state of spiritual pain and might merit some compassion.) I think beauty is incredibly important in theological formation. To me there is something really lovely about the Church saying (as parents sometimes do) "I'll reach out to you even if you don't have the wherewithal to come to me."

Lane said...

This has been really helpful to ready, and I'm grateful for those who wrote. I did consider most of these things (even the vestment thing) ahead of time, and if it's any consolation to those who thing I'm totally wrong, I'm not sure I'm totally right. But it was worth the discussion, and I can tell you that it was really right for the people who did it.

FYI, we didn't just to a smudge-and-run. For those who were willing, we did get into some heavy conversations. And we passed out ERD Lenten meditation books, along with the bulletins for our Ash Wednesday services that included the full text of the readings and prayers, along with invitations to attend worship and "do it right." A couple of them did.

Maybe best of all, it caused people on the train platform to ask "Why do you do this?" and that was a great basis for conversation.

I think there's plenty of room for reasonable and faithful people to disagree about the wisdom of imposing ashes on a train platform, and I've appreciated the more thoughtful criticism. The thread that strikes me as problematic is the attribution of motive to me and to those who chose to receive ashes. (By the way, it was about 95% of those who passed by.) If you want to know my motives or rationale, ask me. One thing I can tell you about theirs from having spoken with them, looked in their eyes, and touched them, is that there was nothing cheap, easy, or shortcut about this for them.

Personally, I wanted every single one of them to come to Transfiguration and worship with us, get the whole treatment, etc. But it was clear to me that some of them were as close in that moment to reconnecting as they had been for a long time. Call it Snickers if you want, but if I'm starving and you give me a Snickers where I live and invite me to come back for the real deal, I'd give it some thought. I think that's worth the risk.

Thanks again for thoughtful responses. Come see us at Transfiguration some time. Fair warning that I'd do it again, and probably will.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Lane, I'm so glad you stopped by for a visit and left your comment. I'm especially glad you didn't "smudge and run" - which seemed to be the case with other clergy, at least in terms of how the media reported it and quoted them as saying.

I might be tempted to do as you did - a few prayers, a meaningful conversation - some human connection and ritual context for the symbol.

Well done. Thanks again.

Ann said...

Thanks Lane --- really appreciate your willingness to share the story of the day with everyone on Episcopal Cafe´ and to come to this blog to respond. Would that all clergy could be as open and non-defensive when questioned.

June Butler said...

Lane, thanks for coming to give us the eye-witness account of how "ashes on the go" worked out. I applaud you for stepping out in faith, and I'm pleased to hear about the response of the folks who received the ashes.

Malcolm+ said...

Thanks Lane. If you'd care to stop by Simple Massing riest and offer your reflections, I know my readers would also appreciate it.

Erika Baker said...

I’ve only just read the post and the whole conversation and I feel a little uneasy. I’m probably way off target here, but it somehow strikes me that we’re having a conversation among ourselves on how to reach Them, and about whether They are given wholesome food or Snickers, a touching point or an easy symbol.
I’m missing a genuine connection with the people we’re doing this for. It feels as though we’re trying to identify a need and deliver a solution all on our own. And that can be seen as either na├»ve or patronizing. Do we know whether they don’t come to church? Do we know why they don’t come to church? Do we know why they are attracted to ash smudges on a railway station? Do we know what they thought they were doing? How it affected them? What meaning it had?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think this is one of the shortcomings of conversations in cyberspace. People come late to the conversation, perspectives change but the words still appear permanent on the screen.

Your questions seem to want a 'consumer survey' before hand to 'test the market'. I suppose it can be seen as arrogance to the nth degree to simply assume that people will want someone in a chasuble on their early morning train platform imposing ashes.

Your questions also point to what I've been asking the whole time: Where's the personal connection - even if momentary? Where's the relationship - even if briefly? How do we not know that the "prayerful look" on people's face wasn't a petition of pain born of guilt or shame - that we weren't stirring up some old, long ago situation with no way to follow up, no relationship to contain it?

I don't know - I go back and forth in my ambivalence about this whole thing. As with any ritual or symbol, there is potential for great good, but without the context of community, there is also potential for great bad.

And now, I'm uncomfortable having this conversation in cyberspace . . . . but grateful for your questions.

I think by greatest discomfort is that there doesn't seem to have been a great deal of thought before the action - which is the way with most liturgy, right?

I'll quit now. My ambivalence is really showing.

Ann said...

You assume there was no thought before the action - from what I can tell - all those doing it put a lot of prayer and reflection into their action. And are still reflecting on it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Ann, there's "thought" and then there's "thought". What I read in the article - which is, admittedly, not the whole story - was that the thought was something along the lines of "Gee, this is cool. Let's do it."

It's interesting how judged I feel about an assumption that I am being judgmental when I am really just struggling with the question. I think it's much more honest to struggle openly with the question than to fear being judged for being judgmental because I don't embrace it wholeheartedly.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

It's interesting how judged I feel about an assumption that I am being judgmental when I am really just struggling with the question.

Same here, Elizabeth. I keep reading things like "rule keeper" and "holier-than-thou" and what I feel are DELIBERATE misreadings about what I said about Snickers (please note that my comment said "WE might be..." not "THEY are..."), and wondering why it is that people can't seem to understand what I'm saying or the concerns I have? (Waves at David@Montreal)


Ann said...

I am not judging you - just trying to lay out some facts for my own reflection. Not agreeing does not equal judging

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Facts, Ann? Read what you've written again. You rarely question, mostly 'proclaim'. "You assume" vs. "Are you assuming?" - as but one example.

It may just be style. Cyberspace is not the best way to communicate. I'm just sayin', "Ouch".

Ann said...

Time for me to leave this conversation. I am not trying to attack you--- sorry if that is how it comes across.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Not attack. Judge. Big difference.

This conversation may be coming to its natural end anyway. It's been good and I appreciate your - and everyone's - diverse contributions.

June Butler said...

Imposition of ashes is not Communion. I would never advocate giving out Communion on the train platform or on a street corner separated from the liturgy. No slippery slope here.

I know and love a good many of you who have taken the position of questioning whether "ashes to go" is a good thing. As I read your responses, a picture of the church lady kept popping into my, no doubt, warped, twisted mind. Mea culpa! I'll be the first to say that the picture of the church lady is not a fair metaphor for your words, but I wonder if, since the picture persisted in my warped, twisted mind, then perhaps the same impression may have formed in the minds of others who read the responses.

My view of the offering of "ashes to go" was to see it as a lovely and compassionate outreach.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mimi - I understand, on one level, but on another, well, I could hardly be described as "the church lady". Raising questions about distributing a symbol devoid of the context of ritual (which didn't happen in all cases, I understand) is important for 'thinking Anglicans'. Hardly 'church lady' stuff. That's more what we can expect from the ACNA crowd.

June Butler said...

That's more what we can expect from the ACNA crowd.

Elizabeth, I'm not sure what your "that's" refers to, but, in any case, perhaps the conversation has come to an end.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

"That" = church lady.

And, I suspect you're right.

JCF said...

I'm so late to this party, I've forgotten what I said about it, over at Episcopal Cafe/The Lead! ;-o

On this one, at this time however, I think I endorse the Gandhian perspective of "Experiments with Truth".

Is Ashes-to-Go Good? Bad? I don't know---but I'd not get in the way of anyone wanting to experiment w/ them (as I think IT said: it seems to me, that "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return" has a certain speak-for-itself quality. Even if it's NOT the "full-meal" a starving person CAN survive a bit longer on that proverbial Snickers bar, y'know?)