Let’s get one thing straight: I am not anti-ashes.
I know people who get all worked up over Ash Wednesday, because it is a popular liturgical holiday which is not a Solemnity, and conjures more excitement from the faithful than, say, the Feast of the Assumption. People make a big deal out of “getting ashes” even though it’s not obligatory. So some people see Ash Wednesday as another sign of those “greedy” cultural Catholics who will only come to church when they are going to get something. I do not share that sentiment.
People want signs, and ashes are a fine one. Mimicking our baptismal anointing, the ashes form a cross on our forehead proclaiming to whom we belong. So all the people, even those who haven’t given much thought to practice or theology during Ordinary Time, line up to “get” them.
I say this all to make the case that I am pretty laissez-faire about the practices of Ash Wednesday – most of our Lenten practices are customary, that is, there are few rules about how they must be done. No rule says ashes can only be distributed during mass. No rule says you have to go to mass on Ash Wednesday. And as the practice is common in many Christian churches in addition to my Catholic Church, there are as many ways to celebrate the rite as there are Christian communities.
But still, this was just too much: Celebrating Ash Wednesday outside of Starbucks. Isn’t it natural, on a day of fasting and repentance, to catch people after they’ve grabbed their morning indulgence and ambush them with ashes?
Forgive that one cheap shot. I really do respect the energy behind their ministry. But I think the practice is misguided. No matter how pervasive the movement of American individualism is, I refuse to believe that faith is something you do on your own. That’s why we come together in faith communities to practice. Sometimes our faith requires us to show up. If we want to participate in this custom that marks us as Christians (and that is not obligatory!) then the only way to express that desire is by showing up. But my belief in the value of community isn’t my only hang-up.
What is often forgotten is that ashes are a sign of repentance. It’s not just that we are sporting our Lenten forehead fashion out of Christian pride: this smudge should also be a sign that we know we are sinners and we have committed ourselves to turning our lives around. For the sake of those in Starbucks, I hope that encountering an ash-er on the sidewalk will inspire them to “repent and believe in the Gospel”, but I fear it will only increase complacency.
Yes, as the article mentions, Jesus went out among the people and ministered to them. But when he did that he made great demands of them. His demands were not judgmental or pushy but manifested his high expectations. I think he truly believed that people could “go and sin no more”, give away all that they have and follow him”. Yes, grace is free, but it’s not easy. It calls us to discipleship and repentance, not to skip off sipping our latte. I’m not convinced we do people any favors by making it easy to do something that is supposed to be difficult.