Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the forty days of Lent on the Christian calendar, has been celebrated for centuries in many churches. As a representation of repentance and dependence on Jesus, Christians across America come together to be blessed with the words of Genesis 3:19 and marked with ashes in the shape of a cross on their foreheads. The ritual is not uncommon and widely practiced in American church culture, but what happens when it is taken to the general public, outside the confines of a strictly Christian sanctuary? Ashes To Go, a national organization that was started about seven years ago, has done just that: church officials bring ashes to public places, blessing people as they pass by and marking them with the symbolic cross of ashes.
We take ashes to the street corner because that reminder of need, humility, and healing shouldn’t be confined to a church building. We probably need it more when we are in the middle of our daily business! The ashes we receive are to remind us throughout the day of our need for God, and of God’s call to us.
Ashes To Go, as seen in the above quote taken from their national website, is all about the mission to remind people of their need for repentance, even if that reminder comes in the middle of a crowded urban street corner. On the national website for the organization, stories of joyful reactions and “smiles of gratitude” are described. But America is not a country of one-sided opinions, and in fact many negative responses have been shared in a number of articles about this national phenomenon since its beginning. One particular piece in The Washington Post by Michelle Boorstein features both sides of the argument, noting that even though the majority of people walking by Ashes To Go at Union Station would identify themselves as Christians, the reactions to being asked to represent this faith on their foreheads seemed to vary.
But why do so many people object to the idea of making this ritual public for those who would like to participate, and why are so many of those objecting people Christians themselves? According to Boorstein’s article, the many Americans who call themselves “unaffiliated” with any particular religious group include a portion of Christians. As the custom of wearing the ash cross for Lent is mainly associated with what the article calls “traditional Christian denominations,” it follows that people of the Christian faith who do not want to be associated with specified tradition would in fact not want to take part in such a conventional practice. But this simply cannot account for all the Christians passing by Ashes To Go at Union Station who were not willing to participate in what is widely accepted as customary for their faith. Why were people hesitant to proclaim their religion in such a way that it could literally be seen on their foreheads?
The answer may lie in American culture today. In a country that emphasizes religious and cultural freedom, it is not surprising to find that people are hesitant to show what they truly believe in such a straightforward fashion. Modern culture in America is seemingly geared toward imaging and outward appearance. How a person looks or what a person wears is paramount to the way that person is viewed by society. For example, someone sporting large, dark-framed glasses and colored, tight-fitting jeans might be labeled in American culture as a hipster. Outsiders may associate this identification with any number of characteristics and connotations, whether they are true or not. In the same way, many people, including Christians, could be opposed to being branded by a cross on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday. The implications that come with being publicly labeled as a Christian are enough to make some believers pass by the Ashes To Go station rather than receive the blessing.
In her book America: Religions & Religion, Catherine Albanese continuously returns to the theme of religious change brought on by an evolving environment and America’s “manyness.” The effect of national religious diversity and changing culture can be seen even today. The controversy of Ashes To Go and public labeling of faith illustrates just how much American culture can influence religious perception.