Admittedly I’m a late-comer to the movement. Ashes to Go has its roots in ecumenical cooperation. Around 2007, in the St. Louis area, a group of diverse clergy from an assortment of church affiliations, met as they regularly did, for Bible Study. In casual conversation and laughter, one of them suggested offering “drive thru” ashes. It was an off-handed joke, but it got them thinking.
Several years later, in 2010, clergy from three Episcopal churches in Chicago decided that they would give it a try at places like train stations, where busy commuters went to and fro every day. They were overwhelmed by the response and the gratitude of those who took them up on their offer.
Then in 2012, things spread nationwide. Enter me. As most of my parishioners and friends can tell you, I’m a traditionalist. I’m not a fan of trendy worship. You’ll find no projection screens or drums in my sanctuary. Give me the good ol’ fashioned Prayer Book and a set of vestments (but proper ones, not the sort that our beloved Presiding Bishop wears).
Gathered at a clergy event in our diocese, several fellow priests, whom I really respect, were talking about giving it a try. Several of them were traditional too, and they had very pastoral and evangelistic reasons for wanting to try it out.
As much as I love good liturgy, I also love people—and I have a particular care for the underdog. So, I thought I might just bite the bullet and try it out here at my local train station too.
I had become good friends with another Episcopal priest in town who served a neighboring parish. We talked. He was game. I was game. So we made a plan to do it.
We went to the commuter rail station for a couple hours around 5:30 or 6am. There’s building, so we stood outside on the curb, out of the way of busy pedestrians scurrying up the stairs and across the bridgeway, over to the inbound tracks. It was cold, but we made the most of it.
We didn’t shout. We didn’t share cautionary tells of hellfire and brimstone. We simply smiled and nodded at those who would acknowledge us, and we wished people a good day. A couple people came up and asked what we doing. We told them that because it was Ash Wednesday we were there to offer ashes to any busy commuters who might not be able to make it to church.
I can’t remember how many people took us up on the offer. Some talked with us about our purposes but weren’t really interested. But those who were seemed so grateful. I also know that at our evening service that same day, we had a number of new visitors. (Of course, that could also be due to a photo of us in action being printed in a local, online news site.)
When I later touched base with clergy elsewhere in the diocese, I heard similar, moving stories of people who were so grateful for clergy simply being present. Although it’s always dangerous to speak for other Episcopal clergy, I think they’d agree with me that regardless of how many pedestrians took part, we believe our presence was worth it…because it reminded ordinary people, busy people who might not brave the inside of a church (for whatever reason) very often, that the Church has not forgotten about them.
Since Ashes to Go spread nationwide, numerous clergy have voiced their concerns or criticisms about it. I’ve read plenty of articles and blogs on both sides of the aisle.
I’ve heard that ashes to go is repugnant, offering people some trendy equivalent of cheap grace. And, yet I would argue that all grace is cheap, as well as costly. It is cheap because, by it’s very nature, it is God’s gift to us, pure and simple. All we have to do is receive it. Yet, it is indeed costly as saving grace cost our beloved Savior his very life (one which he would take up again on the third day).
I’ve heard people caution that it’s a slippery slope. What will crazy clergy be doing next? Offering Communion to go, anointing to go, absolution to go? Remember I’m a traditionalist. I know that this is comparing apples and oranges. Receiving ashes is not a Sacrament (of which, my reformed friends, there are 7), though perhaps there is some grace to be found there.
I’ve heard people say that ashes are devoid of meaning apart from the Ash Wednesday liturgy, and yet I’ve stared into the eyes of those who benefited from Ashes to Go and I’ve seen the depth of understanding and profound meaning that has touched them to their very souls.
There are any number of other criticisms against, and I won’t belie your ability to use Google.
I don’t harbor any ill will to those who disagree with me on Ashes to Go. Some very good friends, whom I deeply respect, are opposed to it. I happen to believe that the Body of Christ is broad and diverse enough to allow all of us to serve side-by-side, in spite of this and other disagreements.
I’m glad I took part in Ashes to Go. I know how busy people are. I know how even good intentioned people can find it immensely difficult to take part in church activities—especially midweek ones. And, let’s be honest here, most congregations don’t make it particularly easy for people, especially younger generations, to actively engage. (How many college students do you know who actively take part in something on a weekend morning?)
I also know my context. I know that I live in the outer suburbs called Metrowest. I know that it takes roughly an hour to get into the downtown Boston on the train. I know that for those who work full days there, that means leaving around 6 or 7 and getting home around 7 or so. (–that’s if you catch your train, and if it’s running on time.)
I know people can fall out of the habit of church and then feel odd trying to get back involved. What will other, more regular, attendees say? What questions will they ask?
I also know people who have no doubt of God’s existence but have been deeply hurt by institutional religion.
For all of these people, and so many more, I take part in Ashes to Go on the chance that even one person’s life can be touched by a gentle, loving reminder that the Church is still there for them and that God still loves them.