Ashes to Go? Context and Rationale

Many Episcopal parishes, along with other Christian in other communities, have begun to engage in a practice known as Ashes to Go. The idea is to go out into the world and bring something of the uniqueness of the Gospel to people in their busy lives by administering ashes and some portion of the Ash Wednesday liturgy to people at busy street corners, transit stops, outside Starbucks, and so forth. Here is a piece I wrote for the Anglican-Episcopal blog, Covenant, about the practice, where I think through what is at stake and how we would go about determining if this is an example of cheap grace (like crosses worn as a fashion statement), or whether it may be closer to an inspired example of creative evangelism?


  1. Latching onto this one “rite” one day a year has always mystified me. The de-contextualizing issues aside, why do this only with ashes on Ash Wednesday. If this sort of evangelization is so worthy, why not do it with communion on Sundays? Of course, commuter train platforms are pretty empty on Sundays, so why not go to a stadium where a sporting event is being held, to a movie theater, or a shopping mall with the eucharistic elements? Or offer anointing regularly where you’ve offered ashes. If this type of evangelizing/sacramental gesture is worthy, then surely its application is worthy in other ways, and times, and places.

    1. While ashes are a sacramental for Catholics, Anointing is a sacrament that can only be administered to much more limited scope of persons – it’s even more limited than the sacrament of Reconciliation as there are other conditions required (and the latter sacrament is supposed to precede Anointing if a person is aware of grievous sin or is subject to canonical penalty requiring lifting, as it were). (Of course, only a priest or bishop can administer Anointing; the Council of Trent doctrinally ruled out deacons, let alone layfolk.) So I suspect Anointing to Go would be frustrating in practice to all involved.

      1. It doesn’t have to be sacramental anointing – – just have people go out with blessed (not necessarily Chrism-Mass blessed) oils and anoint away. Or lay hands on people.

      2. Eastern Catholics/Orthodox have anointings with blessed oil that are not considered sacramental.

        This rite can only be done by a priest/bishop. Oil collected from icons, blessed lamps, etc can be given to the laity for their own personal use and anointing. There is no doctrinal issues with lay anointing in principal, but the Roman Church has added more restrictions to avoid even the resemblance of lay administration of an actual sacrament. See Article 9 in the following link.

        I interpret this as forbidding all lay anointings though I think a case could be made that it should be only interpreted as forbidding anointing of the ill since that is where the issue is addressed.

  2. It was my understanding that not only Roman Catholics were doing this. How about Palms at the mall?

  3. It sounds like desperation to me!

    Were I your average bloke in the street and some dude in a white dress and a jar of ashes tried to ash me, I’d call the police!


  4. A local UCC Minister gives “Ashes To Go” in front of our Catholic Church before our 12 noon Mass on Ash Wednesday. I used to be highly annoyed, but it’s not like I ever heard of anyone coming to Mass on Ash Wednesday confusing the minister on the corner with the Eucharist going on inside. Most folks will generally do what is necessary to find their way to a church on this day.

    So after I pondered that, I let go.

  5. Agreed Alan, lay people have always blessed with the oil of St. Jude, and the use of oil to bless is anointing. Educate the laity that all anointing is NOT AOS, and the “problem” of anointing and who is holy enough to do it disappears.

    Not to mention there are often not enough priests to anoint in hospitals. My diocesan vicar told this Board Certified Chaplain to do the prayer of the Church if that exigency occurred with a dying patient. It is far more important that the person’s spiritual needs are met, than arguing over who does it or where it is done.

  6. And people are laying hands on each other all the time without anyone thinking that they are simulating a sacrament. The gesture of blessing is not forbidden to lay people.

  7. Well how about Episcopal/Anglican priests giving ashes to a stuffed animal? Discuss…
    If you don’t believe me, just look on FaceBook and search Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City Long Island

      1. That picture is totally charming!

        Paul, where is your sense of humor?? This is about engaging with young children. You probably never had your dolls “play church” either.

  8. This is basically the equivalent of cheder boys hanging out in front of the supermarket asking people if they want to shake the luvav.

  9. In my perception, the Holy Spirit is characterized by movement… sending us *out* to bring the Gospel to the world and bringing people *in*. To receive ashes requires a movement from the outside → in. It requires a soul voluntarily to move inward, closer to the center… to acknowledge its mortality freely and willingly… to appear before the living God to confess its faults and do its (little) part to work out its salvation.

    I’m all for creative evangelism, so long as it is real and grounded in deep prayer. But to go out — treating people who aren’t ready to go ‘in’ as though they’re there — strikes me as misguided evangelism… what is often termed ‘cheap grace.’

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