Lately, my social media interactions have been full of posts about why we should or should not do Ashes to Go. But first, if you don't know what that's all about, you might ask: what's Ashes to Go?
Simply put, in the (often self-imposed) busyness of 21st century life, fewer people make time to attend Ash Wednesday services at their local congregations. Still others, under the weight post-christendom requirements of work commitments, coaches, and families, truly can't attend their church home (or any church, for that matter) at 12PM or 7PM. Ashes to Go is a pop-up work of public theology that invites people to receive ashes on their foreheads as a sign of their repentance and the beginning of the Lenten season.
You might then wonder: that seems nice enough. What's the problem with that? Well, as someone whose graduate work is in liturgical and homiletical theology (in other words, the theories and practices of worship and preaching), there are problems to note. Most significantly, Ashes to Go can further separate us from our faith communities and seem to support the hyper-individualism of faith (a uniquely American phenomenon). Further, divorcing the ashes from the liturgy that surrounds them can make their meaning more ambiguous. Are we just feeding a consumer culture and therefore watering down the meaning of our rituals?
Some Ashes to Go events feel just like that. Come by, have a minister smear some schmutz on your face because you used to do that when you were a kid going to church with grandma, and then be on your way. But that's not the event that I do, or that many other practitioners that I know utilize. We include saying psalms and prayers together. We include active repentance of sins. We include active references to the season of Lent, as well as distribute materials that invite participants into Lenten practices. Even better, it wasn't just individuals who participated today at Capital University. We had multiple small groups come together, miniature worshipping communities of otherwise unrelated people who suddenly together began confessing and praying and seeking a sign of God's continue gift of life to the dust of our lives.
On Capital University's campus today, we also offered multiple well-attended liturgies that included imposition of ashes. This wasn't an excuse not to gather together. It was an attempt to connect with those at the edges of the worshipping community and center them, at least for a moment, in acts of public worship.
Perhaps most importantly, the public nature of these ashes invites conversations with people who aren't Christian, but are curious about the practice. Conversations with Muslims about why we do this thing, and then turned about our shared appreciation for Jesus. Conversations with non-religious socialists about how they used to like ashes, and then turned to the beauty of effective community organizing. Conversations with maintenance workers who didn't want ashes themselves but knowing that Lent was starting was important to them because a friend devoutly observed the holy season.
We need to attend to the content of our faith and our worship, and not simply sacrifice it to accommodate to the environment in which we find ourselves. We must also realize that the content of our faith can be communicated in different forms, and so new movements like Ashes to Go will be imperfect, at least for a while, as they develop their own robust liturgies and practices to ensure their continued vitality in the life of the church. Ultimately, we do Ashes to Go because it provides a public witness to the importance of faith on our campus, something that turns people away from consumer culture and tower selflessness. We do it because it provides more opportunities for connecting the Body of Christ in person rather than showing off our ashes on Instagram to those whose schedules wouldn't allow them to commemorate this entrance into a season of repentance and preparation. Increasing our capacity for and participation in faith is always worth doing, not matter how imperfect the forms might be.
"The beginning of the reign of God is the end of the reign of me." That's what I said in my sermon last week. Something I still believe to be true. Our faithful response to God's reign constitutes the Christian life.
In our faith, the work of revelation properly belongs to God. We can't force God to reveal anything to us, or anything at all. Not the Kingdom of God, not who will win the next World Cup, not the cure for cancer, nothing of minor or massive significance. We can't force God's hand.
But we can use our hands. We can, and should, respond.
That, you see, is the wonderful interplay between revelation and response. As God's creatures, we respond to God's action. As actors in God's story, we respond to God's stage directions. We're simultaneously free to act and dependent on God's action. As we come closer in the lectionary to Jesus's Transfiguration, the very precipice of Lent, we see that logic enacted in our own liturgical calendar. The Lenten season, full of our repentance and preparation for Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, is immediately preceded by the transformation of Christ before our very eyes. We may see Lent as a chronological, calendrical response to the Transfiguration.
We may also see Lent as a response to Holy Week. This touches more on kairos time, the kind of time that focuses not on sequence but on meaning, propriety, or significance. In other words, for us Lent serves as a response to Holy Week because we plan to join the disciples at the Last Supper and "do this in remembrance" of Jesus. Lent serves as a response to Holy Week because we will go to dark Gethsemane on Good Friday. We know that, on the Great Sabbath, Jesus harrows hell on that holiest of Saturdays, liberating all oppressed by sin and death, and so we respond with an entire season of Lent. Ultimately, we prepare ourselves in response to and anticipation of the Great Easter festival.
"Good order" isn't often a concern in campus ministry. We're more consumed with creativity and experimentation, responding contextually rather than dogmatically. However, we mustn't underestimate the importance of the good order of these things, with God's action always first. Our actions aren't meaningless; rather, they're imbued with meaning through the activity of God. Our work isn't worthless; rather, it's made worthy by the one who worked us into existence from the dust of the earth. When we see our living as a response to God's life, that's the beginning of the reign of God in our lives, and the end of the reign of me. That order matters not because it demeans us, but rather because it give us the perspective of meaning through the eyes of Jesus, the one who sacrificed all that we might live abundant life. We'll never love ourselves or the world with the fullness of God unless we allow the Kingdom of God to reign first in our lives. That's why revelation precedes response.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.