Ashes to Go or not to go, that seems to be the question…

By Michael Sniffen
Posted Mar 3, 2014

It’s that time of year when we will be treated to enthusiastic media reports and Facebook posts about fellow clergy “taking to the streets” on Ash Wednesday. Perhaps you are planning to do just that. You might be thinking, “What an innovative, relevant, outward-focused, accessible, hospitable, humble ministry to undertake.”

Before you put on your gear and head out with the Lenten swat team, can we be real for a moment? I know you are chomping at the bit to “meet people where they are” at your local commuter hub, but please pause with me in the sacristy for just a second.

I was so nervous about offending you that I almost decided not to put this out there, which says plenty about the fragility of my own clerical ego. But I need to be honest with you about how weird this “Ashes to Go” thing is. It’s really quite macabre to impose a sign of mortality and repentance without the freeing experience of ritual repentance or the pronouncement of God’s absolving grace by a priest of the church. I know you prepared a nice post card with Psalm 51 and a forgiveness prayer – but that doesn’t get the job done. Also, I’m wondering if you will be at the same corner on Easter Day to proclaim the Resurrection…but let’s stick with Wednesday for now. It’s hard to make a right beginning of Lent while on your way to Target after work. If one wishes to repent, they might prefer to speak with you privately or offer a prayer of the church in a less hurried manner. Those who can’t make it to scheduled Ash Wednesday liturgies often drop by a local church between services to receive ashes from the parish priest. I have never seen someone turned away.

Do we have the practice of standing on street corners offering last rites to anonymous ambulances as they pass by? Better to go to the hospital and spend a little time, no? I understand that God’s grace works in mysterious ways. The saints of God are doing their thing in schools, or in shops or at tea and all that – but why are we stalking people with ashes as they go about their business? Why are we turning Ash Wednesday into freaky Friday? Every morning is still Easter morning, right? Or did I lose the plot at some point?

I am totally with you on taking church to the streets. Let’s do it! Our common life as Episcopalians is grounded in the Eucharist and rooted in resurrection. Why don’t we begin by offering the body and blood of Christ outside the sanctuary? How about washing and massaging the feet of weary commuters waiting for the bus? Let’s offer anointing with holy oil for healing on the sidewalks. Why don’t we venerate the feet of the homeless and outcast on Good Friday at a local shelter? How many baptisms have we conducted in a public park lately? Why don’t we set up hours to hear confessions in local bars and offer God’s forgiveness?

Why start with ashes? Ashes rather than water, or bread, or wine, or oil is a strange place to begin from the perspective of ritology. Religious signs and symbols operate differently outside their ritual contexts. Are we not worried about re-defining ourselves as “people of the ash?” Just to put my money where my mouth is…I presided at a Eucharist in the Hyatt parking lot while I was chaplain to Integrity at General Convention in 2012. During the Eucharist, a young adult was baptized in the hotel fountain while cars and pedestrians and pigeons passed by. It seemed to work. I’m serious about these “hit the streets” ideas and many of my colleagues and I have tried them. The streets are a great place for the rites of the church. Preaching in the streets has transformed my understanding of preaching dramatically as a preacher and a teacher of preaching- so I’m not just a spokesman, I’m a client.

My concern is this: I fear that Ashes to Go is a way for cloistered clergy and baby boomer bishops to check the box of relevance while presiding over an institution that is not “meeting people where they are” in ways that really matter. Ashes to Go risks nothing, it costs us nothing, and it bears witness to a wimpy church. Please prove me wrong on this point.

I intend to check this out with my therapist and spiritual director, but I have a hunch that most of us who vest in alb and stole and stand for a few hours on the sidewalk with a dirty thumb are desperate to feel that we (and by extension the church) have something real to offer. We do have something to offer and its Jesus Christ. Living out our vocations as priests is often grueling and thankless, even in the midst of many blessings. Let’s be honest about that and help each other to really walk in the ways of Jesus Christ, rather than participating in empty ritualism. If you have a robust street ministry, then by all means – ashes should be a part of it. But too many of us in the ashes only category will congratulate ourselves on having participated in a radically welcoming street ministry this Ash Wednesday. What will we really have accomplished in Christ’s name? Who will really have been served?

Why don’t we take our ministry to the streets for real?! Let’s spend more time at the county jail. Let’s join local protests against inhumane corporate practices. Let’s deal with greedy landlords. Let’s go to city council meetings and hold the feet of elected officials to the fire. You know, Jesus stuff. Amos said something about God taking no delight in our solemn assemblies. Let’s be real about the ongoing need for the institutional church to publicly repent of its apathy, survivalism and indifference to human suffering.

Let’s agree that if Ashes to Go is the only liturgical street performance we do, it falls a bit short of the Great Commission. Under scrutiny, it appears to be a disconnected feel-good give-away ministry in which we clergy self-importantly smudge our neighbors and go home satisfied. Hey, we reminded each other of our common mortality. News Flash: People are well aware of their mortality. They are suffering. It would be better for us to go out and glitter bomb people while shouting, “God loves you!” Then we could dance embarrassingly down the road to the next missional endeavor. I ask you, my colleagues, why not give the people a garland instead of ashes? Why not give people reason to believe that the church is a very present help in time of trouble? Not notionally. Really and truly. We do that by hitting the streets genuinely, not gesticulating oddly with a crystal jar of ashes on the light rail.

When the Christian people of God are moved by the Holy Spirit to remember that they are dust and begin again, they will find their way to a local church. Let’s not get our ashy hands all up in their business and tell ourselves it’s an act of evangelistic kindness. We’re Episcopalians. Let’s live as if we are a resurrected people. Lets serve our neighbors faithfully, selflessly and humbly every day. Then folks will know by our actions that, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”

Ash Wednesday services in my parish are at 7am, noon and 7pm. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, come join us. You’ll be very welcome.

Your brother on the road,
The Rev. Michael Sniffen
Rector of The Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, Brooklyn