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."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.
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.
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.