It’s no secret that Anglicans have had a complicated relationship with Ash Wednesday. Although the practice of imposing ashes was common throughout medieval England, during the Reformation the imposition of ashes was abolished. English reformers cited concerns over the rise of popular superstitions related to the practice, and so for many centuries Anglicans marked the solemnity of the Lenten season not with ashes, but with scripture readings, penitential collects and praying the Great Litany. Not until the Catholic revivals of the 19th century did the imposition of ashes reappear among Anglicans, and in America, it was only the 1979 Book of Common Prayer which fully restored the practice throughout the Episcopal Church.
This restoration was done with theological reflection and rigor. The 1979 liturgy of Ash Wednesday brims with carefully crafted liturgical tension, and when celebrated aright, the worship is heart-rendingly beautiful. It begins with prayer and readings, and the appointed Gospel is always Matthew 6:1-6, 16-20, which declares that we should not practice our piety before others. We are then ushered into a moment of profound self-examination before being called forward to be marked, visibly and palpably, with a dark cross of ashes. Afterwards, we say or chant Psalm 51 and pray a litany of penitence which ends with this solemn and searching declaration: God desires not the death of sinners, but rather that we might all turn from our wickedness and live. Here the liturgy may conclude, or the congregation may celebrate the first Eucharist of Lent. Either way, it is a moment of worship that is not soon forgotten.
During my time as a priest, I have seen firsthand how the imposition of ashes has become a cherished ritual among Episcopalians. Every parish in which I’ve served or worshipped in has enthusiastically embraced the practice. Yet, our Episcopal eagerness for ashes has also given me occasion to wonder if the English reformers might have been on to something.
Not long after I left seminary, the Ashes-To-Go craze took hold. This practice has numerous variations, but the goal is always to place a well-dressed Episcopal cleric in a very public place and with a very large sign announcing that it is, in fact, Ash Wednesday. Passersby, many of whom would not ordinarily darken the door of a church on this day, are then invited to step forward and receive the ashes. A few years ago, some parishes also began to mix glitter in with the ashes in order to show the welcome and inclusivity of the Episcopal Church.
I don’t deny the compassion and desire for connection that motivates churches to embrace these practices, but I do have to insist that these actions reveal a troubling trend. Episcopalians seem to be more and more willing to separate the imposition of ashes from the scriptural and liturgical foundations of our faith; we are more and more willing to treat the ashes as if they were meaningful in and of themselves without reference to the atoning death of Jesus Christ. If this does not qualify as a rise in popular superstition, I’m not sure what does. This is precisely what the English reformers feared. We are losing our hold on the Cross of Christ and idolizing the ashes. We are collapsing the tension of Matthew’s warning and embracing ashes as a performative and self-referential act of public piety.
Nowhere has this become more apparent than in the recent and widespread call for an “Ashless Wednesday” in the face of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. On the face of it, this might seem to run counter to the Episcopal Church’s tendency to overemphasize ashes, but I’m convinced this call takes our ash veneration to new heights. This year, all of the Ash Wednesday chatter I’ve heard has focused solely on the problem of “the ashes.” Will we “fast” from the imposition of ashes, or will we administer the ashes? And if we do administer the ashes, how will we ensure that people receive the ashes safely? Will we require vaccines to get ashes? Put bowls of ashes outside the church? Mail out individual packets of ashes? Have people make their own ashes and sign themselves at home? Use a long stick with an absorbent cap so priests can mark people with ashes from a distance? (No, I’m not making that last option up).
To my mind, all of these conversations fail the test of the English reformers. We are neglecting the weighty matters of sin, penitence, mercy and forgiveness, and concerning ourselves with ritual minutiae. We have forgotten the Gospel. The solemn liturgy of Ash Wednesday is not an elaborate justification for publicly marking ourselves with ashes; it is a solemn assembly in which the people of God are gathered together in order that the crucified Lord might call us once again to repent. It is only by His gracious gift that we are given everlasting life, and the path of that life always leads to the Cross. Whether we choose to omit the imposition, or whether we choose to embrace the practice, we all need to understand that any notion of “safely” administering ashes is absurd. There is no safety on offer. Christianity has never promised such a thing. The ashes we impose in the name of Jesus Christ are not cold; they are smoldering with real spiritual power. Administer them or do not administer them, but do not pretend they are anything other than what they are: a bidding to come and die.
The longer I meditate on Ash Wednesday this year, the more I am dismayed by my own complacency and privilege, as well as that of my beloved church. All around the world, Christians are gathering for worship. For many of my brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, this act carries considerable and severe risk, both to themselves and to those they love. This is a risk that I, as an American Episcopalian, have never known, even in the time of Covid-19. And so, when I place ashes on the foreheads of my parishioners this year, I will do so not because I am convinced that it is safe. I will do so because I believe I must stand with them and proclaim that only Christ can conquer our fear of death. Because the truth is that in this world, I will never be safe. I will always be mortal, formed of dust, and to dust I shall return. Ash Wednesday does not shield me from any of this. Ash Wednesday calls me to remember. It calls me to repent and return to the Lord. For in Him, I dare to hope that one day I will be raised up from my dust. In Him, I dare to hope that I might one day see the whole Creation made new.