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Ashes to Go? Context and Rationale

By Matthew S.C. Olver

A practice that has gained momentum in recent years is to offer Ashes to Go at busy locations like transit stations (see these tips, by the Rev. Emily Mellott, founder of the movement). This might be as simple as imposing ashes in the sign of a cross on a person’s forehead with the liturgical sentence Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Or it could include a brief adapted rite drawn from the proper liturgy for Ash Wednesday from the 1979 prayer book, which I cite throughout this essay (Word .doc.pdf).

What do we make of this? Is this an example of cheap grace that is more like crosses worn as a fashion statement? Or is it an inspired example of creative evangelism?

After some considerable thought, I have come to think that this can be a useful evangelistic tool, assuming that the context of the gospel in the prayer book liturgy can be legitimately maintained. But it is important to work through the issues that are stake in taking a rite such as this one to the streets.

To answer this question well, I think we need to be clear about what the Ash Wednesday rite is. Fr. John-Julian, OJN, notes a helpful distinction between the two “regular services appointed for public worship in this church” (Elements of Offering: Principles, Practices, and Pointers for Anglican Worship, p. 65). First, there is the Holy Eucharist, “the principal act of worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts” (BCP, p. 13), which is “primarily an action.”

We gather as the body of Christ, listen to portions of the Word of God that direct us to the mystery of the gospel, and then engage in what Christians believe is the most doxological corporate action possible: the offering of bread and wine as symbols of all of creation, along with our selves (our souls, and bodies) as an oblation of praise to God, that the Father joins by the Holy Spirit to Christ’s one, eternal, and inexhaustible self-offering, which he continues to plead on our behalf to the Father in the heavenly temple. (If a theologian needs to define the Eucharist in one sentence, it can’t be short!)

Second, Daily Morning and Evening Prayer are the other services of public worship; and in contrast to the action of the Eucharist, “the Divine Office is primarily a Reading — a literary liturgy for the literate” (Elements of Offering, p. 65). While there is an aspect of praise in the Office, it is much more a particular kind of engagement in which Scripture becomes our prayer (in the Psalms and lessons) and our praise (in the canticles). The Eucharist is an action that assumes the participants are Christians. It is a response to, and a participation in, that which makes the Christian faith distinct: the salvation of the world through the death and resurrection of the Son of God, come in the flesh. The Offices do not require such a posture, but they can most certainly engender it.

When I teach the prayer book to students, I spend a lot of time in what seem like preliminaries, such as the principles that undergird the Western approach to ceremonial, how the rubrics work, the types of liturgical constructions in the prayer book, and the general ceremonial approaches that correspond to these constructions. For example, the Lord be with you has a naturally corresponding gesture of greeting and openness (opening and extending the hands). In the Eucharist, formal orations (e.g., collects, the Prayer for the Whole State in Rite I, the Great Thanksgiving) are prayed with hands raised in the orans position. On the other hand, suffrages (a sequence of versicles and responses, which are almost always Psalm verses appropriated and made into liturgical text), are said with a book in your hand, as these almost always occur in the Offices. When they occur elsewhere, they are still said with the hands joined, even though they are prayer.

So what is the Ash Wednesday liturgy? It is a unique, singular construction, as are most of the Proper Liturgies for Special Days in the American prayer book. The use of ashes comes from an early practice of public penance for notorious sins.

The penitents were placed under discipline on this Wednesday, admonished and prayed for. They received the laying on of hands and then were dismissed from the church prior to the Eucharist. The imposition of ashes and the use of the seven penitential psalms (Pss. 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143) were added to the rite of dismissal in the ninth century, and the day came to be known as Ash Wednesday. (Marion Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book, p. 218)

By the 11th century, public penance had all but disappeared, at least in parish churches. “But the old texts continued in use and Lent was given a new dimension as a time in which all received ashes and underwent penance” (Hatchett, p. 219). As was normally the case when an additional rite was added to the Mass, the rite was appended to the beginning of the liturgy. In the current prayer book, it is placed after the sermon. The retention of ashes even after the disappearance of public penance is, by the way, a good example of how important days in the Church year (or important rites, such as the eucharistic prayer) are more impervious to revision.

The current Ash Wednesday rite in the American prayer book reflects this Western history and the variations that marked this rite in the Sarum usage in pre-medieval England. The venerable collect is Cranmer’s composition, but draws from the blessing of ashes and the introit for this day in the Sarum and Tridentine missals. The address to the people that follows the sermon (usually beginning with words like “Dear friends in Christ”) is a relatively rare type of construction in the American prayer book.[1]

The address (1979 BCP, pp. 264-65) contextualizes the ritual actions that follow:

  • This practice is based in an ancient practice of preparing to celebrate the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection
  • Penitence and fasting are the normative expressions of such preparation
  • Another context of Lent is preparation for Holy Baptism, which would be marked by catechesis and penitence
  • A third context is public penance, by which “the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith” (p. 265).
  • After the explanation, the gathered people are charged to observe a holy Lent in the following ways:
    • self-examination and repentance;
    • prayer
    • fasting
    • self-denial
    • reading
    • meditating on God’s holy Word.
  • Finally, the use of ashes is given a particular meaning — “to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer” — after which ashes are imposed.

The context is this: in light of, and in preparation for, the celebration of the Paschal Mystery, ashes are imposed and accompanied by the words that God said to Adam and Eve in the wake of their disastrous sin (Gen. 3:19; see also Gen. 2:7, Eccl. 3:20). They are a means to enter into the Lenten season in which the Church calls us to undertake special acts of discipline and self-denial to open ourselves to the work of God.

Ashes gather up a theme that runs through the whole sweep of salvation history: when judgment was announced on Sodom, and Abram sought to intercede on the city’s behalf, he said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27). Dust was an image for wayward Israel (Num. 23:10). The object of Israel’s sin, the golden calf, was ground into dust, mixed into the water, and Israel was made to drink it as a sort of anti-sacrament (a similar scene is in 2 Kgs. 23:6).

Ashes are a sign of repentance at major junctions: Josh. 7:6; Job 2:12, 16:15; Lam. 2:10; Ezek. 27:30; Rev. 18:19). And in the New Testament, dust is the definitive image to distinguish Adam from Christ in 1 Corinthians 15 (as we read last week in the Office).

Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed. (1 Cor. 15:45-51)

Following the imposition of ashes, those who have received them kneel and pray the one penitential psalm that remains in our rite, Psalm 51, followed by a Litany of Penitence and the Peace.

Ashes are what in Catholic parlance are called sacramentals, “sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments” and that “signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church.” Their purpose is to dispose the recipients or users “to receive the chief end of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy” (Sacrosanctum concilium 70; Catechism of the Catholic Church 1667). The way ashes function in the prayer book aligns with the character of a sacramental. The prayer book does not use the language of sacramentals, though there are other examples that fit into this category (palms on Palm Sunday; the wooden cross to be venerated on Good Friday; the new fire and the Paschal Candle at the Easter Vigil; wedding rings at a marriage).

Our prayer book’s Catechism distinguishes between “the two great Sacraments of the Gospel,” baptism and the Eucharist (1979 BCP, p. 858), and “other sacramental rites”:  “confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction” (p. 860), and the latter should not be confused with the category of sacramentals. While it is normative for a bishop or priest to officiate at this rite and impose ashes, the rubric that indicates that a deacon or lay reader may lead the rite in the absence of a priest suggests that the same principle should be observed if parts of the rite are used elsewhere.

Thus, the principal question regarding Ashes to Go is this: To what extent is the spiritual usefulness of ashes dependent on context? The only place to really go for an answer is the rite. In light of this discussion, it is difficult to see how the particular ritual act of administering ashes can mean much when abstracted from its context. The sentence to be used as the ashes are applied — “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” — only speaks to one of multiple pieces that give the rite meaning (i.e., the Christian gospel; preparation for the ritual entrance into the Paschal Mystery in Holy Week; the reality of sin and the confession of particular sin; the season of Lent as a period of self-examination, repentance, and mortification).

And we can’t forget: while the prayer book never indicates how the ashes are imposed or on what part of the body, the long-standing Western practice is to impose them in the form of a cross upon one’s forehead. One intention of this method is to connect the action to the signing of the forehead with the cross after baptism. In other words, the form of mortification and a “right beginning” to Lent presumes that the journey began earlier, at baptism, which provides a theological and anthropological context for the action. We who are people of dust, whose bodies will return to the dust, have been made alive in Christ (1 Cor. 15:22) and thus will “certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5).

Just as sacraments can be received to no effect, so can sacramentals.

In my judgment, the effectiveness of a ritual depends on the context of its enactment. But we should also remember that there are multiple contexts in which ashes may be received. For the Christian who is, for whatever reason, prevented from coming to church on Ash Wednesday for the normal liturgy, Ashes to Go is a way to enter fully into the ritual action, despite its brevity. This is analogous to taking the Blessed Sacrament to those who are ill or prevented from participating in the Eucharist and administering it in a brief ritual form. But the less Christian one is, the less one has a context in which to make sense of the ritual.

To simply apply ashes to a person’s forehead with the sentence and nothing more is to strain the ritual to its breaking point. Rituals must have a shared context if they are to do their work. Otherwise, it’s simply a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.

If this is going to be an effective tool for evangelism, the heart of the gospel that is disclosed in the prayer book’s liturgy for Ash Wednesday must speak as clearly as possible. Make every effort to make this opportunity as sticky as possible: Make sure the name of your church is clear on your sign or handout. Use as full a rite as possible and let the prayer book’s language have its place. Ask people if you can pray for them. Be attentive to those who might benefit from laying on of hands or whose consciences are troubled and need the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Have a clear, succinct, and informative handout that explains what you’re doing, provides ways for people to go deeper (prayers and websites, like the Daily Office by the Mission of St. Clare or St. Bede’s Breviary), and gives them ways to connect with you church (not just service times, but also opportunities to serve the community).

A number of the resources on AshestoGo.org help to contextualize the ritual action by creating a rite of variable length based on the prayer book. I have drawn together some of the materials there into a single document and edited them to conform more closely to the prayer book liturgy and included additional prayer book collects that one might include in a handout (again, see here and here). Also included are brief forms of Laying on of Hands for Healing and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This encounter may prompt a person to desire one or both of these rites and priests should be actively prepared to provide this kind of pastoral care.


[1] The other places such a construction are found are the longer biddings to confession the Offices (1979 BCP, pp. 41, 62, 79, 116) and the Eucharist; the optional Exhortation to Holy Communion (pp. 316-17); the opening of the Easter Vigil (which, at two sentences, is quite short; p. 285) and its bidding to the renewal of vows (p. 292); the famous address that begins the Marriage rite (p. 423); the brief bidding that introduces the Litany at the Time of Death (p. 465); and the brief opening address at the Dedication and Consecration of a Church (p. 567). To this we could add the charge to the ordinands in the three ordination rites (pp. 517, 531, 543), though they are addressed only to the ordinand but in the presence of the gathered congregation. Outside of the biddings to confession, all the other examples are occasional or episodic: they don’t mark regular, normative rites for public worship.


  1. Fr. Olver has done a good job here of providing context for what is happening when we mark foreheads with ashes. His concern that a solid context be given to the ritual even when it is performed on a street corner or in another public space is admirable. Certainly the sort of thicker version of such an event that he suggests–with hand-outs, opportunities for prayer and confession, and signs that speak of a concrete outreach by the local church–is far superior to the mode in which I have sometimes seen “ashes to go” carried out. If all we do is place ashes on people’s heads and tell them to remember they are but dust, we’ve pronounced a death sentence over them without also giving them the hope of the resurrection. I think everything that Fr. Olver suggests seeks to mitigate or avoid that.

    I am not convinced, however, that the kind of context necessary can really be provided even by the thicker version of “ashes to go.” Of course, there may be instances in which certain people miss out on the ritual for whatever reason–people who are working, people who are sick, etc.–and having a short, easier version that can be brought to them would be beneficial. But that sort of thing is still essentially done from within the life of the parish, which is to say from within the life of the Church. To offer the same thing to the random passer-by is to cut it loose from its anchor. Even if you explain it in great detail, and ensure that the person has been baptized before making the sign of the cross on their forehead, you are still essentially immersing them in a ritual that is free-floating, disconnected from the life of an actual community. And even if there is an explanation of the Gospel offered with it, the heart of that ritual remains the death sentence, minus the Eucharist as a Gospel response. Of course, the person who is already in the community might be able to assume all that into their own rhythm of prayer and practice. They will go to the Eucharist eventually, if not right in that moment. But the person on the street–there’s just no way to really plant them in it.

    There is, of course, a good impulse behind the whole thing if it is meant to be evangelistic. But that requires an evangel, which “ashes to go” tends to lack when taken out of the church setting. Far better, in my opinion, than standing on a street corner and handing out ashes would be to establish relationships with those people–perhaps on the street corner, or perhaps somewhere else a little more conducive to the building of relationships–and invite them to come and experience the life of the Church. Or even to do something far weirder and grander, like a flash mob Eucharistic adoration. People would lack context for that as well, but at least the heart of it would be Jesus Himself and not simply our fragile mortality.

  2. Good stuff Fr. Olver! You summed up our experience. This was our second year, and we more than doubled our participants without seeing a reduction in our two full services. We provided a card with a summary of the day and Lent. Also included a link to our online devotional. Gave out a prayer resource for adults and children (prayer beads). People were overjoyed. Numerous faith conversations, out of town guests, Christians from other denominations looking to give Lent a bigger try, and even some giving us contact info so they can plug into our church.


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