As the preview news stories begin, and more and more people are sharing their Ashes to Go plans on Facebook and via other media, the comment conversations have also begun: Is it right to make Ash Wednesday so “easy?” Is it right to separate the ashes from the worship of the church community? Every comment stream I see has shock and dismay AND people sharing the power and promise of Ashes to Go.
After several years of offering and promoting Ashes to Go, I still consider these questions regularly. I want people in church on Ash Wednesday. I love what we do there, together, hearing scripture, praying a litany of repentance that reminds us of all the error, sin, despair, and brokenness of our world and lives that’s so much bigger than what’s on our minds at the train station, grocery, or where ever we might encounter Ashes to Go. And together, in church, we place ourselves and our community in God’s hands to receive and strengthen our repentance, and then we break bread together. I love every bit of the traditions of Ash Wednesday.
But Ashes to Go, ashes outside the church, in momentary encounters, also becomes more and more important to me every year. I am not at the train station for the people who come to church all the time – I’m there for the people who can’t come to church: because their work is not flexible enough or because they have been hurt by the church – or simply bored by the church into believing that the truths and actions of our faith don’t matter in daily life and “the real world.” We go out because the community defined by the doors, walls, and especially hours of the church is not the target of the gospel, or God’s call to repentance.
But more and more, now, I go out with Ashes to Go because of the community that is formed and defined at the train station. There, strangers connect with other strangers – tipped into a “congregation” with fellow commuters by the act of receiving ashes in this secular sacred space. And members of my congregation experience the powerful connection to the community of all God’s people, sharing ashes and prayer with people to whom it would never occur to them to speak of God at any other time. The power of mortality, repentance, and reconciliation sinks in to our hearts even more deeply when our own thumb makes the cross of ashes on someone else’s forehead, when we discover that we have the power to communicate God’s presence, and God’s invitation. Members of my congregation from 14 to 74 discover the evangelist within themselves and within each other, reflected in the eyes and hearts of strangers to whom we offer ashes, one by one. And we recognize God’s children in our unknown neighbors – deepening our definition of community in a way that begins to reflect the kingdom of God just a bit better than the faces in our pews could alone.
Yes, it’s about gathering the community.
But it’s also about meeting God’s community, ungathered, and letting grace happen.
And it’s okay if you hate it. That’s God telling you that you yourself need to be in church. That the community inside the walls needs your presence, your time, your faith, your hope, and your repentance. So I’ll see you at the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday, and it will be a gift.
And in the meantime, God is out on the streets, too, surprising the people offering the ashes just as much as the people receiving them – making sacred space of time that isn’t measured in hours and posted worship times, and making community that isn’t measured by attendance, familiarity, or predictability.
Absolutely, Ash Wednesday and the practices of our faith are about community, and about time. But both are God’s, where ever and when ever we go. Thank God.