There's a hot new trend in the Episcopal Church (and for once I'm not talking about Lent Madness). "Ashes to Go" is the clever name for bringing ashes to the masses on Ash Wednesday. The idea is for fully vested clergy to go to places like commuter rail stations or busy intersections or coffee shops or even, as has happened the past few years, Grand Central Station in New York City.
I have a number of friends who have been on the forefront of this movement -- the epicenter (no pun intended) was Chicago -- and it's spread all over the country. There was even an article in yesterday's USAToday titled "Episcopal Priests offer 'Ashes to Go.'" (Take that, Lent Madness).
I applaud the entrepreneurial spirit of taking worship into the streets. If the Church is to thrive and remain relevant rather than wither on its ecclesiastical vine, such thinking is essential. Proponents of "Ashes to Go" note that it's not intended for church goers who "get" the whole forgiveness thing but is a form of evangelism meant to convey this message to the wider world.
And yet, as innovative an idea as this is (and as much as it plays to the strengths of those few extroverted priests out there), I struggle with the concept. The danger is that it reduces this sign of penitence and mortality to little more than a liturgical party favor; something to show off to your co-workers over that morning cup of coffee.
The reality is that true forgiveness and repentance only take place within the context of authentic confession. Drive-thru grace doesn't do justice to the profound theological underpinnings of our faith. "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return" only makes sense within the context of the Resurrection. Otherwise it is a truly depressing and deadly notion.
So I'll be indoors at St. John's today with services at 12 noon, 4:00 pm (children's liturgy), and 7:30 pm (with choir). When it comes to Ash Wednesday, I personally prefer to dine in rather than take it to go.
This isn't to say that I'm opposed to this practice of, to quote the Doobie Brothers, "Takin' it to the streets" -- not at all. The Church should be out in the world where it belongs. But I do caution those involved in "Ashes to Go" to think before they smear.