As with many new innovations or practices in the church, the practices of #AshTag (wherein those who have received ashes take to social media to post a selfie of their ash-crossed foreheads) and Ashes to Go has created a fair amount of dissent and discouragement about the direction of the church on this, a very holy day. Now, I do believe that those who stand in objection to either of these practices is doing so not out of spite but out of a deep sense of commitment to the intense reality that lies at the heart of Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is not a day of celebration, rather it forces us to look at our own mortality and seek penitence for our sins. The phrase “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” stands as the stark reminder that today, of all days, is our day to reflect on the fragility of our lives, and begin the journey of lent that culminates in a tomb.
However, it is clear to me, that when done right, #AshTag and Ashes to Go do not stand in contrast to this message. Nor is this message lost when we take it to the streets.
Concern about these practices is often tied into the Gospel lesson for the day, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. Particularly the verses: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”(Matt 6:1) and “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” (Matt 6:5) When taken on a surface level, it is clear that these two verses show that our practice of proclaiming our ashes goes against the very Gospel message that we hear today. But, that is the danger when we use verses out of context to prove a point. These verses come out of a much larger sermon by Jesus that encompasses all of Matthew chapters 5-7. From this same message where we receive the preceding two verses, comes this famous line: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”(Matt 7:7-8) This is the point of #AshTag and Ashes to Go. This is why the practice needs to continue.
When we practice #AshTag and Ashes to Go we are not promoting an act that is being commodified by popular culture, rather we are acting in the same vein of the Gospel message. When Jesus directed to pray in private, he was doing so because it was counter-cultural. The most important people of the day, the “cool kids,” were those whom Jesus labeled hypocrites. They did all of these things as a show to prove they were holier than thou. We as Episcopalians should be encouraging #AshTag and Ashes to Go because this act is also counter-cultural. Ask any high schooler if church is considered “cool” and 9 out of 10 times the answer will be no. But, with #AshTag and Ashes to Go we are giving them a sense that church is something not only to participate in, but to be proud of their participation in. We are giving them ownership of their faith.
And that’s what it really boils down to, ownership. Ownership of one’s faith has been lost by many people today. The same was true of Jesus’ time as faith had been taken over by spectacle. Today, faith has been taken over by apathy. #AshTag and Ashes to Go stand against this apathy. They attempt to push back against the cultural climate of the day by making a public spectacle of faith, because without it, people lose sense of where they need to go to seek, knock, and find.
Lastly, in terms of remembering our mortality, it is true that this solemn sense can be lost. But, when we close rank and file and fail to spread a simple reminder to others that today is Ash Wednesday, we will not be able to spread the message that lies at the heart of today. It is hard to preach a message to empty pews, and while some attempts to bring people in may be ill-advised, they are nonetheless attempts at spreading that solemn message to as many as possible. Ashes to Go does not serve as a substitute for Ash Wednesday services, but those who seek it out were never going to come in the doors in the first place, so why do we deny them an opportunity to be reminded of their mortality, however briefly. The #AshTag is not a symbol of personal piety but rather a friendly reminder that today is Ash Wednesday, and you still have plenty of time to find a service.