Friday, February 15, 2013
This past week, in priestly circles at least, there's been much discussion over a phenomenon called Ashes to Go. Ashes to Go is when a priest imposes ashes on people in the public square: at a college campus, a subway station, an office building, wherever. The debate and discussion is centered around a Christian practice and where it belongs. On one side you have people saying that the liturgy of the imposition of ashes belongs in the context of the church. Others say that the imposition of ashes is a way of doing guerrilla liturgy whereby we surprise people with the Holy Spirit and offer them an opportunity to be reminded of their mortality and besides who knows what the Holy Spirit can do? I am a huge proponent of innovative liturgies but in this case I believe that I fall in line with the traditionalists. And here's why: (Before you read any further, I do want to note that there is a spoiler alert concerning Downton Abbey. if you are not up to speed on the third season read no further.) Imagine for a moment that you know nothing whatsoever about Downton Abbey. Okay? If I walked up to you on the street and said, "Sybil dies." would you care? Does it matter to you that Sybil dies? Not only are you disconnected to the character and disconnected to the entire story that the news that Sybil dies is maybe sad, generally, because it is sad, generally, when people die; but you don't really care, you weren't shocked when I told you. That's what Ashes to Go are for me. They take one small, but devastatingly important, detail out of a much larger context that gives it meaning, and just plops it out there: Remember that you are dust, and to dust your shall return. Sybil dies. Every person, whether Christian or not will die. Full stop. But as it turns out, telling you that is not the main emphasis of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, just as the fact that Sybil dies is the whole of what Downton Abbey is about or is it all that that particular episode had to offer. The imposition of the ashes comes after several readings of lament and powerful prophecy, Jesus' warning about displaying your piety fro all to see( Hello! Ashes to Go! Outside! Displaying your piety!). Then there is a call to a Holy Lent, an entire season of self reflection and study. Then the ashes, a reading of a psalm that asks God to be with us and clean us from all personal and corporate sin. Then comes the litany of penitence which confesses the whole mess we've made, then the absolution of those sins, the assurance that God loves sinners and desires not their deaths. Forgiveness of sin! So that we can enter Lent clean and able to stand before God. Ashes to Go. Sybil dies. It just doesn't tell the whole, or even part of, the story.