Ashes with worship?

Ashes all day?

Ashes to go?

Ashes with glitter?

As the liturgical calendar winds its way certain discussions can be predicted. With Advent its advent candles colors. With Ash Wednesday it’s the way in which we make/dispense ashes.

Ashes are political.

They are symbolic word act of our very real inability to be the beings we want to be. We are no more than ashes, made out of dust, there is very little to do in the time we have. Our lives are gone so quickly. We are compared to such mundane and ephemeral things in the Bible: lilies of the field and sparrows and the ever unintelligent sheep.

We pastorals can feel all of these imperfections wearing us down during this holy and serious season. What is the right way to do ashes? Did we order enough? Did we almost set the church on fire? Did we forget to keep or lose last year’s palms? Do we need to use eyeshadow or printer toner instead?

If we do ashes to go are we not taking the full weight of the season on? If we mix in glitter are we being allies to the queer community or are we appropriating something that wasn’t ours?

How we practice Ash Weds Lent is political. Maybe even mores than Christmas because it is barely commercialized (barring fish Friday celebrations).

My church does soup and worship. It’s very informal. We alway write down our sins and burn them right there. Which is a super chancy thing, because you have to burn things in front of the gasping congregation, trying not to set off the smoke alarms. It’s very vulnerable, because every time you do it the consistency of the ash is different and sometimes you can’t really see the telltale mark of the cross (which is sad when you can’t), and I have to let go of it.

Last year my husband had an all staff training on Ash Wednesday, and I said to him “please let your boss know that’s super-inconvenient for us, I know it doesn’t really effect anyone else but it is.” The plan was that my husband would come directly after his 6pm work, and get the kids. Dinner started at 6pm so it wouldn’t be too bad if my kids were in the way before the actual worship.

Because of the way things timed out, buses being late, etc. My middle child Westley only had about a half an hour home before we packed up to church. Westley has autism and I could tell he really missed his down time and was having trouble. During dinner I immediately told my husband that he should probably take the kids home. My husband thought they could make it through (and he honestly does all the worship care anyway).

During worship Westley wanted to help, and didn’t want to help, he wanted ashes and he didn’t. He was so distraught he ended up having a full autistic meltdown on the middle of the floor. I paused service and my husband and I picked up his nine year old body and physically hauled him out to the car, where I (rather unsuccessfully) tried to convince Westley he’d have to stay in his seatbelt until he got home. He was heartbroken to miss worship.

I definitely felt all the chaos and vulnerability that was involved in Ash Wednesday that night. The congregation was wonderful and told me Westley could have stayed (he wasn’t actually capable of staying, but I appreciated their understanding and welcome) and I felt my expertise as both a parent and pastor under hard scrutiny (my own scrutiny).

My confession that night was heartfelt, my prayer to be more whole through Lenten practice was out of the depths of my identity.

Ash Wednesday all of Lent is a practice in identity, and of course that identity is political. Where are the ashes most accessible to us? What Lent practices work best for who we are?

No photo description available.

How does your Lent practice support who you are? And how are you going to remember when you fail–because part of Lent is failing at the practice you are going to do–how are you going to turn to God and let your ashy, small self be imperfect?

When you practice Ash Wednesday, be political, be your full self, and honor yourself as a piece of ash. Whether it’s plain, glittery, worshipful or on the go piece, do it in such a way to add to your being.

And then let go.

Katy Stenta is a solo pastor at a tiny church that is bigger on the inside in Albany, NY for over eight years and blogs at She is also the co-founder of the fledgling TrailPraisers inclusive Worship. When she is not dreaming up projects and ideas, some of which creep into the church, she plays with her three boys-boys or goes and visits her husband at the library, while he works, to read.

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2 thoughts on “The Pastoral is Political: Ashes to Ashes

  1. I never thought of ashes as being political. I think of them as theological. Here is the person putting on the ashes, saying, “Hey, you are going to die, just like everybody else.” The church I serve has in the past done “ashes to geaux.” (Faux-French spelling popular in New Orleans.) I said, no way am I doing this. It trivializes a powerful spiritual experience. This is not the drive-thru at McDonald’s — you want fries with your ashes? Nor is it face painting for Mardi Gras (which is the day before, from which people are still reeling on Wednesday after weeks of parades and celebrations). It is a reminder that you who give the ashes and you who receive are going to die. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. No matter what your politics are. No matter what your sexual orientation is. Let that shape the way you live.


  2. Kathy, I’d say that all our actions have the potential to be political. That doesn’t mean they are actions reflecting a certain political party or viewpoint, but as acts of resistance. And ashes on the forehead are pretty counter-cultural in a lot of the US nowadays (although they may be much more the norm in New Orleans than in less Roman Catholic spots!)

    For another viewpoint, my (Episcopal) church has offered Ashes to Go for several years. Our youth gather in the parking lot for “drive thru” ashes. The priest offers the blessing, but the youth are the ones who pray for needs people bring. It’s very powerful for everyone. Your mileage may vary!

    Liked by 2 people

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