One of my friends posted this on his Facebook page today:
It is always a little ironic on a day like today. For example, the parish we attend when we are in New York City - St Mary the Virgin - is open from 7am to 7pm everyday and pastorally will offer continuous imposition of ashes for the people around Times Square today. Over 3000 people will come today and receive ashes on their forehead. I don't think 3000 people have ever received the Eucharist there in one day - not even on Easter. My own Diocese of Chicago will administer the now trendy 'Ashes to Go' today throughout the streets of Chicago. Why is it that human beings are so easily satisfied with the ashes of death and not the Bread of Life?
I've thought about this one off and on today, and I seem to be of two minds regarding his question. One is to answer his question exactly as he posed it, and the other one is to ponder, "Is that really what people desiring ashes is all about?"
So let's start with his exact observation. People seem more willing (judging from the church traffic on Ash Wednesday and the popularity of Ashes to Go) to have ashes--a sign which some read as our sinfulness, others as simply a sign of our mortality--placed upon them more than they do in receiving the Eucharist. Why is that?
My theory? People wouldn't be as attracted because it's just way easier for people to get hung up that they're NOT worthy rather than think they're worthy. It's always fascinated me how people of little to no faith tradition visiting a church--even people who feel warm and fuzzy about the service or even seem desirous of the Sacraments--get all hesitant about Communion. "Oh, I shouldn't. I don't go to your church." Even when the bulletin has a very open and inclusive statement in big black letters.
I wonder sometimes if the stranger who accepts ashes on the street during Ash Wednesday is, deep down inside, hoping for transformation, but shies away from the Eucharist b/c that same deep down inside part KNOWS that the Sacraments are transformational...that their heart of hearts knows the stuff that crawls inside the bread and wine will change them...and we humans, to a great degree, fear change.
Which leads me to that second part. I wonder if my friend is selling folks short by jumping to the conclusion that people are satisfied with the ashes of death. Maybe it's deeper than that.
I've thought recently about how, in baptism, we have the sign of the cross placed on our forehead in chrism, and on Ash Wednesday, with dust. That God knew the essence of us before we were ever born, and will still know the essence of us when we physically cease to exist...that this life of ours, that we treasure so much, that we tend to see in extremes of our awful-ness and our joy, our sorrow and our elation...is just a neatly little book-ended snippet of the totality of who we are in God's Universe.
Could it be that people desire those ashes because they simply yearn to be in touch with that greater totality? I wonder.