In a recent Christian Century article, author Benjamin Stewart mentions the group “Ashes to Go.” On Ash Wednesday, these clergy leave church in order to offer people the imposition of ashes– on street corners, in parking lots, and at bus stops. As the article states, they take “liturgy to the streets.”
We live in a world of reductionism. Exceptions exist for all of these examples, but reductionism pinches much of what dignifies human existence: value is reduced to economics; beauty is reduced to attractiveness; goodness is reduced to taste (“that’s good” = “I like that”); truth is reduced to subjectivity (“my” truth); life is reduced to consumption; the good life is reduced to financial success; education is reduced to career training; freedom is reduced to personal license; the Cross is reduced to a “Get Out of Hell Free” card; the Transcendent One of the Older and Newer Testaments is reduced to the cult god of American dominance.
Contemporary American society tends toward the narrow and the flat.
A Christian witness– outside of the church and in the world– witnesses to a different worldview; or, to change the metaphor, traces the shape of a different architecture to the universe: instead of narrow and flat, we see through the surface to a depth, width, and height that is beyond, even as it is here and now. Ritual action (like good art) can open up and orient us to the depth dimension of life. Ritual action (again, like good art) can also expose the tendency of reductionism to collapse the world into a single system.
An excerpt from Stewart’s Christian Century article follows:
It is perhaps this same impulse that emboldens participants in the “Ashes to Go” movement to shrug off the risk of the police and head into city streets to offer to press ashes onto the foreheads of strangers on Ash Wednesday and to speak the ancient words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
A participant in such a liturgy in New York City, Mark Genszler, described the “wash of relief” that flowed over the faces of those who received ashes—a response he found partly surprising, as he had just told them that in addition to speeding toward the next subway stop they were more certainly traveling into death. But, he reflected, “if you share the secret of your mortality with someone else—even, or especially, a stranger—then you don’t have to pretend that you’re invincible.” The hidden vulnerability becomes at least momentarily public and honored as a holy mystery. And in any case, Genszler said, a shared burden may be lighter.