A light touch on dark and heavy things: ashes to go

After about five years of being on the fence about it, I’ve made up my mind about Ashes To Go.  When I first heard about  the ancient ceremony of marking an ash cross on the forheads of penitents being taken to the streets, I felt it was gimmicky and un-serious.  It seemed to cheapen one of the most solemn observances of the Christian year.

I was wrong.  And when I’m wrong about something, I just about always admit it.  My wrongness isn’t about having had a wonderful experience of having a priest impose ashes on me while waiting for my morning commute or at the local coffee shop (I have not).  My wrongness isn’t based on seeing people who’ve had this minimal encounter with the church suddenly filling the pews at their most convenient and congenial Christian place of worship (I don’t think there is evidence this has happened).

It’s because the western world kind of stinks at talking about death.  And the only venues that provide even marginally good opportunities and resources for contemplating mortality are affiliated with religious traditions.  Yet, mortality–our own, that of friends and family–is the one thing all of us must cope with at some point. And even though I’m not sure that some weird hope of heaven, after I (or my loved ones) cease breathing and return to the dust from which we were made, makes sense, or even if I want a church funeral and burial when my own time comes, I do have religious resources to help face the reality that no life goes on forever.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”  The words are said by the priest who makes a  fat black cross on the forehead of both old and young.  It reminds us of our own uncertainty and fragility–possibly one of the most important reminders we can receive. And it takes seriously the possibility that life can end sooner than we think.

Heavy thougths.  The Ash Wednesday liturgy is full of dark and heavy topics (and, as I mentioned in my last post, a kind of liturgically sanctioned disobedience).  An abbreviated, individualized imposition at the train station or street corner or parking lot may sidestep a lot of that. But it’s a light touch that reminds us the church is a place we could, if we felt the need, delve deeper into these issues that will face all of us.

It lightens in both senses of the word:  it takes some of the darkness away, knowing that there are companions available to talk through things we may not feel easy to talk about.  It takes some of the weight away, because the burden of death–or own, or those we love–can be shared and we don’t have to lift it all on our own shoulders.

When I worked in the Church of England, one of the biggest concerns for ordination training (especially locally-based, part-time training) was that prospective ministers were not getting enough instruction and experience in the conduct of funerals.  Partly, to be honest, a local ordination program could not easily arrange this.  Partly, the “supporting” ministers expected not to have to participate in helping their ordinands to learn how to do funeral and bereavement ministry well (even though the new ministers would serve alongside the very priests who put them forward for training).

But funerals are big business for the CofE. Every person in the parish–and because “parish” is geographic, rather than affiliational,  every person is a parishioner–is entitled to a funeral at his or her parish church.  If someone is affiliated with a religion other than Anglican Christianity, she or he will usually have their final spiritual needs cared for by that religion.  But Anglicans, and an increasing number of unaffiliated people, will accept the ministry of the local vicar or other minister of religion for their funeral (increasingly in the chapel of a crematorium rather than in the church).  So, this is an important point of contact between church and civic community.

Here in the US, Ashes To Go has the potential to open up the discussions around mortality, end of life, death, and bereavement which we find so difficult and about which we are so skittish.  It may not mean that churches get filled as a result.

But it opens up potential conversations about one of the few things the church does better than any other institution.  Which is to remind us that we are dust, we will return to dust, our dust matters both more and less than we think it does.


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