Before I get into what the fight is about, I should explain what Ash Wednesday is. On this first day of Lent, a priest dips her thumb in ashes and then draws a cross on your forehead, saying the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This practice signifies several things. It is a reminder of our mortality. Historically, it is also a sign of repentance: people who repented sat in sackcloth and ashes. The cross is tied to this verse from Ezekiel 9:4: “Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of those who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” This is the Tau cross popularized by St. Francis and his religious order.
People who support Ashes to Go! propose it as an act of evangelism and pastoral care that encourages people to enter into Lent, to know the Church is there for them, to offer prayers for them, and so on. People ask for prayer, sometimes spontaneously confess, or simply get their ashes quickly on the way to work.
Opponents of this practice have a few objections to this: 1) They say that we should not simply extract a highly meaningful spiritual and liturgical practice from its spiritual location in a church community; 2) We shouldn’t give people a reason NOT to go to church on Ash Wednesday; 3) We shouldn’t do it to random people who may have no idea what Ash Wednesday is about.
Personally, I am a great advocate of taking the Church to the streets, and I’ve been a part of doing just that in a variety of ways: food banks, outdoor church services, outdoor prayer, etc. The more we do it, the better.
However, if we want a campaign that inspires Episcopal priests to get out and meet people, I wish we would focus on “Easter to Go!” The good news is not that we are dust and to dust we shall return, but that we are beloved cosmic dust created by a loving God, saved by a loving Christ, and nurtured by a loving Spirit.
The good news is that it doesn’t matter that we are dust; it’s the very finite nature of our existence that draws us to the awareness of the infinite nature of existence, our life in God. Easter is the most obvious reminder of that. We see the destruction of the finite body of Christ subverted by the resurrection. This is no “happy clappy” Good News for us, but a hard-won reconciliation between the finite and infinite aspects of our natures. (I don’t want to go all Kierkegaardian or Tillichian on you, but Kierkegaard and Tillich write beautifully about how the true self achieves a balance between the finite and the infinite.)
Easter embraces both the finite and infinite aspects of our life with God.
This is why I propose a nationwide “Easter to Go!” campaign, followed by “Pentecost to Go!,” etc. How about anointing, healing prayer, and blessings on street corners? How about more Eucharist services for the poor and homeless outdoors? How about foot washings and care at homeless shelters?
Because really, do we want to limit the time that we go out in the streets to offer prayer, absolution, pastoral counsel, and joy to only one day a year?
No. No, we don’t. As Augustine appears to have said, “We are an Easter people, and ‘Alleluia’ is our song.”