Ashes to Go

The distribution of ashes in the context of the liturgy points to the deep union of liturgy with all sacramental life, including blessings.

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While passing the local Episcopal church on the way to work the other day, I noticed a new sign: “Ashes to Go! Wednesday, February 14, 2024, 7-9 AM.” I’m not sure what that means, but all my potential theories aren’t good. 

Catholics, after all, also have “ashes to go” in the sense that very few actually do their best to efface any trace of those burnt palms from their foreheads before exiting the church.  

And while the Church does provide for imposition of ashes outside of Mass, my experience tells me that’s still a minority phenomenon. Even though Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, lots of Catholics do make the effort to attend Mass on that day. A Jesuit professor of mine at Fordham had a theory about that: special freebies always attract people.

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All kidding aside, though, lots of Catholics deliberately carve out time to go to Mass on Ash Wednesday, and—thankfully—most pastors have resisted the siren song of “pastoral adaptation” (i.e., minimalism) by continuing to distribute ashes within Mass. If the Mass is the “source and summit” of our Christian lives, it’s most fitting that the penitential season of Lent—a “time of grace and favor,” as the preface puts it—begin on spiritual summits, not in valleys.

Which means that holiness, grace, goodness…God…always lead back to the Mass, the Church’s central act, its liturgical act.

I emphasize that “everything leads back to the Eucharistic liturgy” focus because it is another challenge to the so-called “development” of blessings claimed in Fiducia Supplicans. Pace Cardinal Fernández’s assertions, there are no “liturgical” and “non-liturgical” blessings. All blessings lead to God, whom we hope to encounter in the eternal heavenly liturgy. Liturgy is not an end in itself but the means by which we worship, honor, and love God. So, to assert that there is some kind of self-standing, non-liturgical “blessing” disconnected from the means of the liturgy—whose end is leading us to the holiness of God—exhibits a fundamental misunderstanding of both blessings and liturgy.   To assert that there is some kind of self-standing, non-liturgical “blessing” disconnected from the means of the liturgy—whose end is leading us to the holiness of God—exhibits a fundamental misunderstanding of both blessings and liturgy. Tweet This

(A blessing is “liturgical” because it is intended to and only makes sense to the degree it seeks to be conducive to the recipient’s further incorporation into the heavenly liturgy. It is not “non-liturgical” just because it hasn’t received a formalized rite in the Rituale Romanum or the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith advises via press release that the blessing be ex tempore, short, and simple.) 

That Catholics connaturally sense they should begin Lent by receiving ashes within Mass speaks far more about the sensus fidei, sensus fidelium, and the Catholic understanding of blessing in relation to liturgy than seven-minute “conversations in the Spirit” synodally compressed into two-week “listening sessions” ahead of Synod on Synodality: Part II.

Even the Catholic rite for imposing ashes outside of Mass incorporates liturgical elements (i.e., some form of Liturgy of the Word and prayers of the faithful). This, of course, mirrors the instructions (no. 272) in the “Directory of Popular Piety and Worship” that blessings be accompanied by a scriptural reading that “explains” them and imprecatory prayer for divine assistance. Both examples run counter to the “developments” in blessings Fernández argues.

So, what is happening with these “ashes to go?” It means some Episcopalian sits around for two hours in the morning to impose ashes on demand; or, you drop in, pick up a packet, and do it yourself; or, worst of all, you simply zoom into the parking lot, get ashed, and go. Can you throw in a hot coffee with that, in the name of “hospitality?” None of this is liturgical. It sends a message: Lent can’t interrupt our lives.  

“Ashes on demand” is not analogous to hearing confessions because (a) the sacrament is a liturgical action and (b) the confession occurs within a structured liturgical event. It is simply individualism run amok at the cost of liturgy. 

“DIY ashes” is even less connected to the liturgy. I note the latter, however, because I fear it is a bad habit lingering from the days of Covid when, for Ash Wednesday 2021, Catholic “field hospitals” had still, to a large degree, struck tent and fled the spiritual battlefield but some churches, wanting somehow to mark the start of Lent, engaged in improvisation. Back then, I remember writing about an Episcopal parish in Rhode Island that had introduced DIY ashes: stop by, pick up a packet, shake, and rub.  

Ash Wednesday may not be a holy day, but Catholics recognize that—as a sign of repentance and conversion from the lifestyle to which they have grown accustomed—there’s a need to stop and pray, and there’s no better prayer than the Mass. It’s not about the external sacramental (and, hopefully, even less about sacramental signaling: see the Ash Wednesday Gospel, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18).  

I recently heard a Benedictine abbot speak about what is distinctive about that order’s charism. St. Benedict built his monastic vision around ora et labora, “prayer and work”—not labora et ora. When the bell rings in the monastery, work is put aside to repair to chapel, because ora—prayer, liturgy—is the work. By modeling fidelity to that precedence, Benedictines witness to the world—including those of us more immersed in that world’s affairs—that work has to be subordinate to prayer.

When Catholics go to Mass on Ash Wednesday to receive ashes (or carve out time to participate in weekday Masses during Lent) they also witness to that truth. That truth is not embodied in “ashes to go.” “Ashes to go” suggests we fit something extra into our busy work schedules rather than tame them. 

Some might call that “pastoral adaptation” or “pastoral accompaniment.” It’s neither: it’s accommodation to secularization while trying to put lipstick on the compromise.  It leads us back to the question: should and even can we have ecclesiastical actions—blessings or sacramentals—that are “non-liturgical?” It seems the Ash Wednesday answer of the faithful is: no. 


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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