The other day the (Western) Church inaugurated the season of Lent with her annual observance of Ash Wednesday. And, in addition to the traditional penitential liturgies and Eucharistic celebrations, a new practice has continued to grow in popularity and practice – particularly, among Episcopal clergy. You might’ve seen it on the news, read about it on a blog, or been a participant or recipient of this new practice, yourself. I’m talking, of course, about the practice of imposition of ashes on-the-go, which has gotten a growing number of Episcopal clergy out of the chancel and onto the streets each Ash Wednesday.
If you haven’t come across the news of this new practice, here are few links to stories about it:
So, let me begin by saying that many priests for whom I have deep respect and admiration – priests who are very good friends – have been at the forefront of this new practice of Ashes-on-the-Go. Many of these friends and colleagues have related moving testimonies about their experiences, and I believe that everyone who has participated in the new practice has done so from the best and purest of motivations. Still, I want to suggest that the imposition of Ashes on-the-go might be a bad idea.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am very much in favor of increasing the visibility of the Church in the World. Against those who would have us wipe the ashes from our foreheads before the Narthex doors hit us on the way out, I have often argued that it is a good thing for Christians to keep the ashes on our foreheads throughout the whole of Ash Wednesday. I say to my parishioners that bearing the ashes on your forehead is not a sign of your personal piety, but an act for the visibility of the Church. You bear witness to the world that there is a people, called by God, who are committed to the Truth enough to acknowledge the reign of Death over this age and their own culpability in that regrettable state.
But therein is my problem with ashes-on-the-go, the sign is severed from that to which it points.
During Lent (in general) and on Ash Wednesday (in particular), the Church tells the truth about the reign and power of Death over the World. Death has such power in the World, in part, because the World is not truthful about Death. And to the extent that we remain in the World, we seek to avoid the truth of Death.
Most of the time, we don’t have time for Death. We don’t have time for Death because we have a limited amount of time before we die, and if we took the time to acknowledge Death, then we might lose some of the precious time we need for the great projects that distract us from the truth of Death. But Lent is a time framed by Death – beginning with the day we are marked by ash to remind us of our mortality and ending with a meditation on that time when the very Son of God was overcome by Death. So, Lent is the time that we set aside to recommit ourselves to being truthful about Death.
That there is a people who can take the time necessary to be truthful about the power and pall of Death over the World is exceptional. Such a people can only exist across time if Death has ultimately been overcome by one who, though subject to time and death, proved to be their Lord. In Christ, we see that the power of God is more fundamental and determinative than the power of Death. We can only be truthful about Death because of the Resurrection. In other words, there is no Lent without Easter, and there is no truthfulness in the World about the power of Death without an Easter people. We are an Easter people, which means that we can take the time to face Death truthfully.
Truthfully facing the power of Death in the World involves uncovering the desires and practices of the World that are under the sway of Death – like the practice of our consumer economy to always possess the latest, greatest things that the Market can produce or the practice of busyness in our lives, by which we preoccupy ourselves so we needn’t be truthful that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
But on Ash Wednesday, we take the time to gather together in worship and liturgically reorient ourselves to the truth. By taking time out of the busyness of our lives to gather together for the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, we respond to the Church’s call “to make a right beginning” of Lent (BCP 264). It is significant that after being invited to make this right beginning, but before the imposition of ashes, the rubrics instruct the gathered church to kneel and keep silence “for a time.” We can be so wasteful with our time (from the World’s perspective) only because we have been and are being reoriented toward the truth about the power of Death and the greater power of Christ by the liturgical season of Lent and the liturgy of Ash Wednesday.
The ashes that we wear on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday are not a sacramental product or service to be dispensed, but the sign of a people who have taken the time to acknowledge the power of Death over the World and over their own lives, who have then confessed their culpability in that reign of Death, and who have then received into their own mortal bodies the body and blood of the one whose death destroyed the power of Death and whose resurrection gives us, the Church, all the time in the world.
We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness, the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives.
-From the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, BCP 268