We're a week away from the Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday, the date when the church begins its season of Lent (the 40 days before Easter).
Our Prayer Book offers a lot of commentary on this day and the season within the Ash Wednesday liturgy itself.
And that's just it.
I keep hearing of more places that are offering "ashes to go" or priests (and lay people?) who are willing to just head out into the street and offer ashes to those who want them.
It's all very well and good to say the words "remember you are dust . . ." as you apply these ashes to someone on the street, but what have you lost in taking the Imposition of Ashes out of its full liturgical context?
Many things. Just running down the liturgy: preparation, prayer, readings, the invitation to a holy Lent, litany of penitence, Eucharist, etc.
But more than this, I think we've lost perspective on what worship is. Who we are. Who we are called to be.
The litany of repentance offers confession of "our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us", and this is for people who are already in the church!
How much more me-centric can it get than, "oh, thanks for coming out here as I do my own very important things so that I can quickly, and tangentially be reminded of God's presence and my own mortality"?
This fosters the impression, as my rector put it recently, "that our lives are our own".
In fact, I think carrying the ashes outside the church building itself and away from any sense of liturgical connection implies exactly the opposite meaning that this Imposition is meant to have.
In his A Priests Handbook Dennis Michno opines:
It is inappropriate to distribute or impose ashes outside of the above [Ash Wednesday] liturgy. For serious pastoral reasons, ashes may be imposed at other times in a setting of penitence and confession. The act of receiving ashes must not become a focal point of this day but rather a sign of the day, a sign that is part of the penitential beginning of the season of Lent.
When we try to evangelize with our ashes, or simply make them more available, we don't offer people much and we deny them everything about the liturgy.
Liturgy is not evangelism (see Aidan Kavanaugh Elements of Rite), nor is it convenient (see the wonderful title of Marva Dawn's A Royal "Waste" of Time).
It's really too bad that more and more of the Episcopal Church seems so eager to take Ashes to the streets without thinking through the theological implications of what they are doing.
This brings to mind a phrase of Percy Dearmer who, writing in 1919 about his frustration with churches carrying out rituals without understanding their meaning, said
That is the condition of most of our churches all over the world at the present day ; that is the impression they make, both in service-time and when they are empty. The ashes of a little fire that has gone out.
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