Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them and I’m totally talking about selfies on Ash Wednesday.” Matthew 6:1, paraphrased
Seems like there is a bumper crop of innovative Ash Wednesday and Lent stuff this year. You’ve got your Ashes to Go movement, which has been gathering steam in recent years. A2G takes the penitential prayer and the foreheading of ashes out of the church building and into the hedgerows and streets. (See Matthew 22 for more on hedgerows and streets.) Church representatives–in vestments or not–stand at street corners or in parking lots and welcome all comers. One priest I know took ashes to a hospital, another took them to What-A-Burger for dinner with the youth group. Another friend got on a bus to “ash” the driver, who had pulled over at the bus stop.
In other Ash Wednesday news, the harmonic convergence of Lent and the Oscars gave us the #ashtag phenomenon. It started with the Photoshopping of ashes onto the faces of the Oscar elite, and ended up as a social media trend. You can read about it here.
One of the most obnoxious dark sides (is that redundant? Is a “dark side” inherently obnoxious?) of social media is that as soon as something “trends”, there is an immediate anti-trend backlash. It goes something like this: “Cool! Everybody Do This Thing! Come Quick! Yay! Fun! Hashtag!” But then, in about 45 seconds come the reactions of the naysayers: “Stop it! Bad! Will Kill You! How Dare You! Not the Done Thing!” It happens so fast. This kind of thing is rampant in today’s political climate, of course. But you will also witness it in other places, such as the constantly changing world of what you should/should not eat, and the world of fashion.
The worst harrumphers, in my opinion, are the religious types (of which I am one, so I can say this.) Because, you know: we’ve got God on our side. We wring our hands about the secularization of society, and how people are leaving church, but when it comes right down to it, it’s just too hard to change. Inviting people to church is fine, but I’m not moving over in my pew. Ash Wednesday on the street? Now you’ve gone too far! We have WALLS, by golly, let’s stay inside ’em! Furthermore (we will tell you): in the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading Jesus specifically enjoins us not to practice our piety in public. So now we have the trending trends of the public Ash-spectacle and the widespread posting of phone photos of foreheads with ashes on them. Defenders of orthodoxy unite! Let the harrumphing begin!
Now. As an ordained member of the clergy in a mainstream denomination, I am not without my own defensiveness. (I still remember the pain of the last hymnal revision.) All I’m saying is let’s lighten up and have the conversation. Maybe it’s a good idea to make this change, to have this crazy idea, to throw it against the wall and see if it sticks…and maybe it isn’t. What does it mean if we do this? Does a ritual act become more or less meaningful when it’s released from its liturgical moorings? This is called theological reflection, and it’s a darned good idea.
Because here’s the thing: the arms-crossed-over-chest reaction is PRECISELY why people who don’t go to church have stopped going to church. Come on, people. IT’S NOT ABOUT THE CHURCH. It’s about a God who–incredibly–became a human being and did crazy, new stuff and told stories that criticized the religious authorities. Basically: Jesus gave everybody fits. And he changed everything.
We need to keep our heads, and have a sense of humor, for heaven’s sake. We need to take our faith so seriously–and be so willing to take it out in the world–that we’re not afraid to lighten up. Let’s make it a Lenten discipline, even. (Because, hey. You’ve got Kentucky Suthun Babdists giving away guns as an evangelism strategy. You’ve got the Pope dropping the f-bomb before (as one columnist put it), giving up cursing for Lent. This is funny stuff.)