Are ashes to go a Protestant no-no?

This week's celebration of Ash Wednesday has prompted several stories built around the theme of "ashes to go" -- a recent phenomena of liturgical Protestant church ministers -- (I've seen reports of Methodist, Episcopal and Lutheran clergy involved) imposing ashes on the foreheads of individuals in public places outside of the confines of worship.

(Yes, "imposing" is the correct verb to describe the act of a cleric daubing an ash covered thumb on the forehead of a penitent. The rite is called the imposition of ashes.)

Theses stories from the Dallas Morning News entitled "Doughnuts, coffee and Ashes to Go?" is typical of the genre, as is the Baltimore Sun's "Lenten observers take their Ashes to Go," and the Philadelphia Inquirer's "Modern-day Lent: Ashes to Go." Each conforms to the general pattern of a description of what took place; an explanation of what the ashes symbolize, a quote from someone receiving the ashes and an explanation from one of the clergy explaining why they do it. Some stories go a bit deeper and note that this practice began in St Louis in 2007 and has slowly spread amongst mainline churches.

What I have not seen in this year's crop (though I have not made an exhaustive search of today's newspapers) is a contrary voice saying this practice is improper. Happy voices predominate and no hard questions are asked.

Compare these stories to Cathy Lynn Grossman's 2012 piece entitled "For some, ashes in a flash for Lent". While it includes the elements of the stories cited above, the USA Today story also asks a spokesman for the Catholic Church what they think of the idea.

Catholic priests won't be dishing out ashes at bus stops. The Catholic Church teaches ashes should be received within a church, during a service with Scripture, prayer and calls for repentance, says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

USA Today also asked the Episcopal priest who began "ashes to go" in 2007 what her theological reasons were for taking the imposition of ashes outside of the church building.

The Rev. Emily Mellott of Calvary Church in Lombard, Ill., and author of, describes the simple sign as a profound experience. "The ashes are an invitation, opening the door for us to the practices of Lent, a first step, a reminder of our mortality and God's creative power," says Mellott, who plans to stand at a commuter train stop today. "We take that invitation and that core truth out into places where people really need that. People who come to church already get the forgiveness thing."

Anyone can accept the ashes, although non-Christians tend not to seek them. If they do, Mellott says, "we view it as an act of evangelism, and we make it clear this is a part of the Christian tradition."

By seeking contrary voices and offering a theological explanation, USA Today wins best in show for the ashes to go stories.

I should wrap the story up at this point. I've identified why one particular story works best and highlighted the religion ghosts in others.

However, I am going to break the fourth wall in GetReligion and offer my own views on this point. This will not come as a surprise to those who comment that every story I post displays my partisan views -- but at GR we seek not to speak to the issues in the story but the journalism.

But I cannot help me self on this one, as I am a working Episcopal priest as well as a journalist, and I presided over an Ash Wednesday service yesterday.

I think it is a terrible idea to separate the penitential rite that proceeds the imposition of ashes. The ashes are not a sacrament that exist independently of the worship service -- they are not akin to the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In the Orthodox and Roman Catholic tradition ashes are sacramentals, (as is the Brown Scapular, Miraculous Medal and Holy Water), which the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1670) states:

do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church's prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.

I do not presume to speak for all Protestants, but can say with some confidence that the Church of England and its sister churches has no common doctrine of sacramentals, and rejected the doctrine that underlay these devotional practices.

Why liberal mainline Protestants would take up the belief in sacramentals for Ash Wednesday escapes me. Offering the outward show of contrition that the ashes signify as an evangelism tool makes no theological sense to me either. The Gospel reading found in the Revised Common Lectionary used by most liturgical Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday comes from Sixth Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew and states in part:

Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

... "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

What is the imposition of ashes in a public place that allows the busy commuter to show the world his piety on Ash Wednesday other than the practicing of piety before others "in order to be seen by them"?

I will grant you that my experiences or views should not be the norm against which others should measure their churchmanship, (though I must say I swing a mean incense pot and I do the best Anglican plain chant south of Disney World) but the arguments put forth in support of this practice I find unpersuasive. There is a real debate out there on this issue and, needless to say, journalists are welcome to cover it. This would only make the story deeper and more interesting.

N.b., if you are offended by my excursus into naked partisanship, write to the editor to complain. Blame my colleagues at GetReligion.They gave me the short straw.

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