Monday, February 18, 2013

Cheap Ashes

The image is striking: a priest stands on a station platform, on a street corner, in the square, vested and wearing a cloak or a cope if the weather calls for it. People come up, and a finger is rubbed in ashes and makes the sign, and the words are spoken: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return". And another person, perhaps a passerby, perhaps a churchman whose schedule precludes going to church, is marked with a sooty cross. And perhaps the world is reminded, once more, how it is fallen, and to where it needs to go for redemption.

The Ashes to Go movement, which started in St. Louis with an ecumenical group of churches in 2007, has spread quickly across the Episcopal Church. This year, for instance, found the Bishop of Washington and priests from St. Paul's K Street offering ashes at a DC Metro station; this diocese published a directory of sites, as did others. The notion is appealing in a nation where the church is often enough looked upon as a decorative element or an avocation, and where its message of repentance and redemption is supposed to be cooped up within its adherents, one "spiritual path" among many. But on a chilly Wednesday, its ministers venture into the world, offering repentance to the world, in the sign of a smudge of carbon. And the media have noticed, for this year I see articles from all over on the practice, such as this one from the Dallas Morning News. The International Business Times even included a list of locations in New York, presumably for the convenience of its Catholic readers, an ironic note given that the movement originated out of the observation that Catholics would go to Episcopal churches for ashes but not for communion.

As the practice has grown in popularity, it is inevitable, I suppose, that contrary voices have arisen. And they are voices I respect, so I feel they must at least be addressed. And mostly the criticisms are consonant with one another: Susan Snook writes, for instance, that "Ash Wednesday makes sense only at the beginning of a season that ends with Easter"; the rector of Christ Church Tulsa insists that the practice goes against the very gospel inevitably read on the day, warning against the practicing of one's piety in public. David Creech echoes these comments and talks about how the acts should be fitted within the larger service of contrition and recollection. Another cleric characterizes it as "cheap grace", surely the penultimate denunciation in this Boenhoffer-obsessed church. It is denounced as individualistic, consumerist, vacuous.

All these complaints, I think, are justified. And yet, I am not utterly persuaded. Surely a Christian should, in a Christian community, be joining others in a community act of repentance. But for many of us, this was not possible. I personally was unable to attend any of the services at my church due to the constraints of my schedule; I was fortunate in finding another parish within a short drive of my office that had a noon service, but not everyone has such an option. If hadn't been able to find such a service, I might have sought a priest on a street corner rather than let the day pass unobserved. In any case I must rely upon my own understanding of the spirituality of lenten practice to make it all "work"— and I ran my hand across my forehead before returning to the office.

But I think the more intense focus here, from both sides, is on the unchurched. And here I come upon a number of thoughts, which may or may not be woven into a coherent tapestry. First, on the matter of cheap grace: talk about it is also cheap. Eventually it comes across to me as a cry of despair from clerics frustrated at their unresponsive charges. And while one should not ridicule the professional hazards of another too easily, the fact remains that the seed of grace, at least, is as cheap as can be. One needs only to be baptized, and for many of us, there was no decision of our own needed to make that happen. Yes, the road to final grace leads to and through Calvary, but most of us Americans will never be stood up against a wall for our Lord; mostly we start our paths quietly and without drama, and many saints finish the trek in similar circumstances.

Second: if there is anything this word needs to be taught, it is ashes. The message of American secular culture is that you find a fulfilling job (and it can fulfill simply by getting you lots of money), find someone (anyone, maybe a whole series of someones) to to fulfill your sexual appetites, and throw together some "spiritual" practices to keep your ego properly inflated. People don't want Easter, or rather, they take Easter for granted. They don't think they need grace; some small number think that talk of grace is futile, but the vast majority take grace for granted, putting their faith in a Christo-Hindu-Theosophist-nature-worshipping-pantheist universalist spiritualism whose only expense, perhaps, is the book you have to buy to get your self-affirmations out of. There is no more important task for Judaeo-Christian religion than to teach the world that it is fallen. If the minister goes out to speak this prophecy, to say, "Remember O thou man" and tell them that no amount of self-affirmation will grant the salvation so desperately needed, then this can only be for the better.

Third, it seems to me that the choice here, for most, is not between ashes on the street and ashes in church; it's between ashes and no ashes. And I guess I'm less concerned about the spiritual dangers, in that regard, because I compare that with being left undisturbed in sin. Sure, some people at least will get a smear of char on their forehead which they can sport during the day in a state of spiritual smugness. They can do that in church, too, even if the gospel lesson instructs them otherwise. But perhaps one in twenty, even one in a hundred is disturbed enough to contemplate their mortality and depravity, and to start down the road of repentance to be embraced by the church which alone can heal the ancient wound.

Therefore I come down, tentatively, hopefully, on the side of taking ashes wherever they may be borne. We will not win the whole world this way, but perhaps, we may win one or two.

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