Since it is the day after Ash Wednesday, most of the religious world will have forgotten about Ashes to Go, and the debates surrounding it, until next year. But, I would like to reflect on the experience of doing Ashes to Go with my parish for the first time this year. Here is some of our local coverage of Ashes to Go - Boston.com, Medford Transcript, and Inside Medford.
First, “Ashes to Go” was not Grace Episcopal Church, Medford’s first experiment in bringing church practices outside of the church walls. Last Advent we set up a “Blessing Station” at a local commuter rail stop in order to offer prayers of healing during the darkest week of the year. We received some good press, which you can find here. We actually expected “Ashes to Go” to be a bit easier than the Blessing Station to do, and the energy that our first endeavor produced in the parish meant we had more ministers for “Ashes to Go” – so we were able to place three teams around town for “Ashes to Go” and were able to reach more folks.
Second, “Ashes to Go” was positively received, but in this first ring town outside of Boston, we didn’t have droves and droves of people come forward to receive ashes. Our three teams, two at bus stops, one at a commuter rail station, served at total of about 40 people in one and a half hours. Some of that is just the layout of the town, and public transportation hubs – no single place has loads of concentrated foot traffic during the morning commute – it is much more distributed around town. We all had many profound encounter with folks, someone who told me they "didn't deserve ashes,” then a few moments later came with tears in her eyes to receive them, feeling reconnected to a faith she seemed to have lost. Another man talked with me about God in his life and recovery from addiction. He never took ashes, but it was a profound encounter. A daughter took ashes home for her father on hospice. And some school kids as they got on the bus. And some folks who when offered ashes said, “what the hell…” or “why not?” and received them and walked away. What the experience meant to each person was different, some profound, some not so much.
Third, there are some really good blog post running around the internet of “Ashes to Go,” (you can read two good ones here and here) many of them focusing on the meaning of the ashes is lost outside of the context of liturgy in the church. One friend wrote to me that it has no meaning outside of “Christ has Died, Christ is Risen, Christ has Come Again.” I guess my feeling is that we do not have a lock on the Christian message inside of the walls of the church. Many folks have experienced resurrection in AA meetings, through their own struggles, and in many other ways. Many people have received formation in Christian teaching and practices, but haven’t been a church for years for a whole host of complicated issues (less than 20% of Boston Roman Catholics even attend church). “Ashes to Go” opens the doors to encounters with these folks, and many more. My sense is the encounters are ultimately more important than the ashes. Maybe these encounters will be encouragement to rediscover of community of faith, maybe it will just be encouragement for their own spiritual exploration outside of the church, maybe it will just be a story told waiting in line for the bathroom at work – we don’t know. It’s a gift of something we as the church know and love to the wider community outside our doors.
Fourth, the controversy around “Ashes to Go” is a healthy and important part of a changing church. “Ashes to Go” is not “the answer,” but it is an important experiment, like our blessing station, on new ways to do and be the church. New ways to share and spread the message of the transformational power of God that we know within the church walls, to people who want and need to hear the message. The traditions of the Church are what we, as church people, know best. Why not figure out how to share what we already know, and find life giving, with those who want and need to hear the Good News, instead of inventing completely new ways, unfamiliar to us in the first place. It’s about grounding our evangelisms in the traditions we know, and giving them as a gift to the world.
Is “Ashes to Go” the greatest thing in the world, to change our church and invite and welcome new people in. No it isn’t. Is it a great experiment that can help us to learn new ways of sharing the faith we know and love with a community who wants and needs to hear our message? Yes, it is. We are going to do it again next year, and other things like it. How else are we going to know what works, and how to bring Jesus grounded in our tradition out into the community, than to start trying…