Confession: I may or may not have posted an Ash Wednesday selfie in years past. Not so I could win a publisher’s contest offering free merchandise in exchange for so-called #ashtags (that IS troubling), but because I was taken by the novelty of the ceremony.
Admittedly, it seems odd to call an ancient ritual “novel.” But that’s what it was for me—and for others like me, who grew up in nonliturgical church settings. Strangely enough, it was in an evangelical megachurch that I first received the imposition of ashes. When the church started experimenting with liturgy in its worship, I was hooked. The perceived novelty was intoxicating in the best way, precisely because of the way liturgy invites into us into something bigger than ourselves.
Many of us are just now stumbling into the liturgy. And for us it’s like a discovery. The weekly Eucharist, the prayer book, the liturgical seasons—we had no idea these things existed, much less how powerful they are. So for some of us, an #ashtag (much as I hate that term) might simply be an expression of our excitement at this “new” way of faith we’ve “discovered.”
We’re like infants taking our first steps in a world where everything is captivating, new, and exciting. And because social media is a natural extension of our lives, posting an #ashtag selfie might, for some, be the most natural way of sharing what the liturgy means to us.
On the other hand, there’s a time for putting away childish things. And Ash Wednesday selfies might be one of them. It worries me when organizations try to make a promotional opportunity out of a sacred ritual. There’s something incongruous about taking a lighthearted selfie moments after a ceremony meant to remind us of our mortality. It’s like “whistling past graveyards,” as David R. Henson put it. It reduces a holy encounter with the immortal God into a social media trend. It inadvertently shifts the focus from the divine to ourselves, as Peter Chin suggests.
Is that really such a good idea?
Perhaps coincidentally—or perhaps not—the incongruity of the #ashtag selfie is highlighted a little too well by the appointed gospel reading for Ash Wednesday:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The appointed reading challenges us to think critically about our practice of Ash Wednesday selfies. Now, I don’t believe most people sharing #ashtags are doing so primarily to win others’ approval—though there is something dangerously intoxicating about seeing the number of likes or retweets your post gets. For most, I think the practice is a genuine expression of what the liturgy means to them, and a genuine desire to share that with others.
Still, I hope we reach a point where those of us for whom all this is new no longer need #ashtags, where the ceremony itself is enough, where our initial exuberance gives way to a quieter, less visible—and ultimately more sustainable—form of piety.