Reluctant Xtian: Ash Kicking or Why I Don’t Think Ash Wednesday is a Good Day for Peddling Religious Goods

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Ash Wednesday is a time to reflect on our mortality as a community, not running to catch the train.

By Tim Brown

I know this post might not be popular with many of my colleagues, but it is timely…so I’m going to put it out there.  ashes

I get why pastors and church people stand by the bus stop and the train stop and on busy thoroughfares for Ash Wednesday. We “get out of the church and into the world” by doing this, right? We “take the ministry to the streets.”

I get the rationale; I get it. And I get that it probably can be pretty powerful for the ashers, and possibly the ashees, too.

But here’s my concern, specifically with Ash Wednesday: I fear it is cheap.

Ash Wednesday is a day of solemnity when we hear the prophet Joel encourage people to “return to the Lord.” The liturgy involves a movement from the Kryie (Lord, have mercy) to hearing Joel’s encouragement to Matthew’s prayerful penitent beat his chest, and then we take last year’s Hosanna’s, burn them as a sign that we’ve burned so much of our praise in pursuit of the dust of this world, and mark ourselves again as dust.

It is a movement of stark realism. It is a movement, like a carefully put together album, that leads you from the realization of mortality to a hopeful life despite the fact that you are dust.

Beautiful stardust…but dust nonetheless.

But more than anything, it is a movement. And it takes a bit of time. Not much time, but some time. Mortality does not sink in so quickly (without sudden tragedy, of course). And we should allow the time. Not much time, but time nonetheless. As the beginning of Lent, a season of intentionality, it seems odd to me that we would start out with such slack intentionality.

It is much more than a simple smudge at the bus stop. Sure, there are many who will offer prayer or information about how the individual seeking to be “ashed” (or get the “ash kicking” as I like to say) can hook up with a faith community.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it.

I’m just saying why I’m not going to and I want to ask the question publicly.

Because despite the prayer and the information on faith communities, I don’t think Ash Wednesday is the day to do it.

We don’t see people out on Easter passing out lilies. Actually, that makes a ton more sense to me.

I don’t want Ash Wednesday - I don’t want my mortality - to be a gimmick.

And there’s something important about having Ash Wednesday with other people of faith, all together, in one place. There’s something important about me, the individual hearing “Memento, homo, quod pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris” but then also having all of us, communally, hear it.

It’s not just about me; it’s about us. We are all stardust and our systems of power and “isms” and phobias have reinforced it.

And there is something powerful about having a train full of cross-smudged commuters.  But what does it mean that they got it running for the 8:05am?

Have an early morning Ash Wednesday service. Or a noon one, where people can do it at lunch hour. Or, have a full one at the bus stop, 20 minutes long. Or point people toward a service that happens right as work gets out downtown. I think these are good options.

Because I want to know: what do we think we’re saying when we’re offering a reminder of mortality on the fly?

Rev. Timothy Brown is the pastor at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. He blogs at