The photo above is of the Rev. Lane Hensely, rector of the Church of the Transfiguration in Palos Park, Illinois (a southwest suburb of Chicago), imposing ashes on the forehead of a commuter at the platform of the local METRA rail station. Yesterday’s Chicago Tribune carried a story about Father Henley’s presence at that location on Ash Wednesday, offering ashes, presumably along with the customary reminder of one’s mortality: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The Episcopal Cafe blog reports that similar efforts took place in several other locations.
At one level, this is admirable, appealing, and winsome. It is a proactive missionary tactic. Any time anyone in the church gets the fact that the “if you build it they will come” era is over, that’s a good thing for the cause of the gospel. It reminds me of the matching T-shifts I once saw on a church youth group at an airport as they were getting ready to embark on a mission trip: “What part of ‘Go’ do you not understand?”
At another level—a much deeper one, I would say—this is profoundly troubling. The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a potent symbolic ritual act. It is accessible on a very intuitive and visceral level, not requiring a lot of rational explanation. For that precise reason, those who are its stewards bear a responsibility for seeing that the power of the act is not abused. The tool by which this stewardship is exercised is the community of the church and the “work” of that community, the liturgy. Both normatively and normally, the imposition of ashes takes place in the context of a celebration of the Eucharist, after the Word of God has been read and proclaimed homiletically, and right before Psalm 51 is prayed, and a corporate confession of sin voiced. It isn’t even the central act of the gathering, and is, in fact, optional.
The imposition of ashes can be said to be, in a broadly generic sense, “sacramental.” But it is not a sacrament, and it is not an entitlement, an inherent privilege of all the baptized. Its significance is revealed only in its native liturgical context. Removed from that context, it quickly becomes incoherent. Apart from the communal character of public corporate (and eucharistic) worship, it easily becomes trivialized, sentimentalized, privatized. It becomes “all about me,” just like most everything else in our hyper-individualized culture. It becomes a very attractive tail with no dog to wag it.
Do Christian communities need to be imaginative about how we display the message of good news that has been entrusted to us? Yes. Absolutely. But we need to do so coherently and thoughtfully, not just looking for a feel-good freebie.