By Patrick Barker
Sometimes Anglican Christianity is said to be “Catholic light.” I take that to mean Anglicans are perceived to have some of the Catholic ethos and traditions, but are not heavy-handed about it. We go easy on the ecclesiastical expectations. There are many treasures to be found along this road. I do not consider “ashes to go” to be one of them.
“Ashes to go” is the relatively recent ecclesiastical fad of offering Ash Wednesday ashes — with accompanying liturgical words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” — to people on the street as they pass by walking, or I suppose, as they wait in their cars for the light to change. The notion of taking the church to the people can be offered as a rationale for this behavior, but it hardly rises to the level of an adequate defense.
Simply put, the problem is context: there is none. Without the liturgical context from whence the imposition of ashes comes and to which it belongs, the act itself means no more than “You are going to die.” While it is true that we humans try to forget our mortality, and while it is true that a reminder of it may spur us to get our various selves in order, still the practice of severing a part from its theological/liturgical body and hawking it on the street under the misguided impression that such is evangelistic outreach is merely another piece of evidence that the Episcopal Church has fallen under the bewitching spell of faddishness.
I attribute the power of this spell to the ubiquitous practice of communication via gadgets. These technological innovations have innumerable advantages. There is no denying that. However, as most of us know, they have also sidelined face-to-face communication, chopping up our communication with one another into bits without context, personal or otherwise. I suspect it makes perfect sense to people whose communications consist largely of such isolated, abbreviated text messages to give and receive ashes to go, ashes that are isolated from the lager community, the people and story of faith. The gospel itself challenges the superficiality of this mode of communication, however; and so, it is difficult to see how it can be an effective medium of it.
It is a question of whether such a practice can seriously engage another person with the claims and promises of the gospel of Jesus Christ. While there is no doubt that Christ can use all of our good faith efforts to present himself to another person in a saving way, I think that ashes to go makes his job unduly difficult because no context is given by which the recipient can make Christian meaning of this Christian custom.
The Rev. Patrick Barker is rector of Trinity Church, Searcy, Ark.