Anyone who has worked in a Catholic parish knows what to expect on and around Ash Wednesday: telephone calls at all hours, strangers randomly showing up for ashes, folks leaving after receiving their ashes but before receiving the Eucharist. Among the “regulars,” there’s a lot of eye-rolling and head-shaking, and an overwhelming desire to figure out why, on this day, getting ashes is the single-minded compulsion of every Catholic on the planet.
But what if this yearly “ash mania” isn’t just a mindless impulse? What if there is something deep and sacred behind it? Could it be that what drives even non-practicing Catholics to participate in this yearly ritual is that deep down it captures the essence of their Catholic faith and what they love about it? Could it be that this day of fasting and abstinence, this solemn inauguration of the Lenten season, has also become a day to celebrate our Catholic roots?
It seems that if we could get to the bottom of the compulsion to “get ashes,” we might find what people are really looking for, what drives and excites them, what is at the heart of the faith for many of our brothers and sisters. So here are just a few ideas about why we Catholics love our ashes.
Catholic Identity and Catholic Pride. Those who make it to an early morning Mass on Ash Wednesday get highest marks on “Catholic pride.” If you get to wear your ashes to work, or to school, or to the grocery store, you get to enjoy strange looks from those who do not know what’s going on and approving looks from those who do. Along the way someone will undoubtedly tell you that your forehead is dirty, and you will enjoy saying, “No it isn’t. I’m Catholic.”
That smudge of ashes marks us as belonging to a group, a very special group, and it simply feels good to belong. This is not an exclusive group by any means; it is not a “secret club” or an elite members-only organization. It is an ancient conglomeration of all types. On Ash Wednesday, it is edifying to look around and see all those types. Our communal, dirty foreheads are a gentle way that we remind the world who we are. And we find that it feels good to be counter-cultural, together.
Sin and Death are Real. Catholics used to be accused of dwelling too much on sin (“Catholic guilt”) and death (“Why the crucifix? Don’t you know he’s risen?”). We’ve lightened up a bit, but we do still insist on reality: we are sinners, we do suffer, and we will die. On Ash Wednesday, we wear a visible sign of these realities – ashes symbolize both our sorrow for sin (“Repent, and believe in the Gospel”) and the recognition of our own mortality (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”).
These might seem like depressing realities – why would we want to spend a day with sin and death on our foreheads? Because we know that the first step in diagnosing and remedying these conditions is to reveal and identify them. To hide them or never talk about them would be like hiding symptoms from our doctors and never being cured. If I am a sinner, I need a savior. If I am going to die, I need a miracle. Our faith offers us both. We do not proclaim our sinfulness for the sake of a guilty conscience, or our mortality for the sake of feeling sad. Rather we proclaim them so we might share in the antidote; we proclaim them for the sake of the savior and the miracle he can work in our lives. With this sign we proclaim the wise words of Christ: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Lk. 5:31).
The Power of Touch. Allowing another person to mark us with the sign of ashes is a very personal thing. We are inviting someone else into our “personal space” and allowing them to mark us with a sign that makes us visibly vulnerable. Just as when we have our feet washed or share in a sincere sign of peace, we are momentarily bonded with the person opposite us, the person who draws near and touches us with sacred purpose.
Although we are being marked with a sign of sin and death, the touch we receive is healing. It is a human touch that represents the healing ministry of Christ and his Church. Catholics are born into or later embrace this sacramental perspective. We see and experience deeper realities in our physical world – bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, water becomes a transforming wash. In this very Catholic way of looking at things, we don’t just get a smudge of ash from a stranger and go on with our lives. No, we stand before one who is both a fellow sinner and a mediator between human and divine realities; we allow ourselves to receive the healing touch of one who is also marked with ash, who also needs a savior, whose way of marking us somehow communicates understanding, hope, and the redemption we desire. The human touch that marks us with ashes is an experience of both human and divine love. Who wouldn’t show up for that?
The Satisfaction of Making an Effort. Why are Catholics willing to make phone calls, alter their plans, scramble kids’ schedules, or even duck out of work to get their ashes on Ash Wednesday? Perhaps it feels good to make an effort to either satisfy a perceived obligation or to do something we know is good for us. Sure, there are other obligations that Catholics may be lax about, but perhaps it’s the once-a-year nature of Ash Wednesday that motivates. Sunday Mass? That obligation is easy to push off: “I can always make it next week.” But Ash Wednesday? It’s only once a year: “I have to make it happen.”
Now perhaps this reason is not as deep or noble as the others, but it does touch on a natural human desire to participate in our own spiritual formation and growth. We instinctively know that although we are utterly dependent on the grace and mercy of God, there are some things we can and should do to foster our participation in that grace and mercy. Sitting at home watching television does not generally bring us closer to Christ. Perhaps Ash Wednesday serves as a wake-up call in terms of our priorities. How to keep that call coming every day is a much more challenging task.
Being Part of Something Ancient. There is something ancient about ashes. Even though the ashes we receive may be “fresh,” the symbolism goes way, way back. From ancient times, ashes have symbolized mourning and penance. We occasionally come across colorful old accounts in Scripture of prophets or penitents covering themselves in “sackcloth and ashes” (Esther 4:3; Job 42:6).
Even those who receive ashes without knowing this background at least know that it is a very old Catholic custom. In a Church that has “updated” in many ways in the past fifty years, our ashes remain the same. We are connected with years and centuries past in a ritual that calls us back even as it prods us forward. This is Catholicism at its best, embracing and inviting others to participate in a beauty “ever ancient, ever new" (St. Augustine, Confessions).
Almost a Year’s Worth of Spiritual Connections. The fact that the ashes applied to our heads on Ash Wednesday come from the palms of the previous year’s Palm Sunday (though admittedly some parishes have now dropped this tradition and purchase their ashes from a supply catalog!) adds another layer of symbolism to the ash ritual. Even if we are not thinking about this symbolism as we go to receive our ashes, it still lies somewhere in the back of our minds, part of that collective Catholic consciousness.
On Palm Sunday of the previous Lent, we waved those palms in joyful welcome, in jubilant recognition of the entry of Christ into Jerusalem. We waved them in celebration, but also with the weight of knowing what would happen in Jerusalem, and knowing how we, the crowds, would turn on him. Those palms went home with us as reminders of the joy and sorrow of Holy Week, of the mission of Christ who suffered for us, and of our own role in that suffering. And now, on Ash Wednesday, the palms have returned, they have been burned, and their ashes are applied to our own bodies as another sign – a continuing sign of the joy and sorrow of the penitent. In these ashes we have almost a year’s worth of spiritual connections – from Palm Sunday to Ash Wednesday, from Lent past to Lent present.
The Beauty of a Simple Ritual. We may as well admit that as much as Catholics love a good liturgy, we also like to know when things will start and finish (Sunday Mass is one hour, weekday Mass is half an hour, the rosary is a quarter of an hour), and we truly appreciate the occasional brief ritual. I’ll admit short confession lines and brief homilies are a few of my favorite things.
I remember one year our family had been hit with some kind of virus, and on Ash Wednesday we were struggling to recover. We had read in the parish bulletin that ashes would be out in the church for those who could not attend a service. We stopped by, curious and a bit sheepish. Inside, a few people were praying, and it was very quiet. Several crystal dishes containing ashes were on a table at the front of the church, with brief instructions about what to say and how to apply the ashes. As we marked one another’s foreheads, it did feel unusual. But the moment was also profound in its simplicity, and the familiar words, as we said them to each another, sounded different. They sank into my mind in a new way. That year, the ritual was uncommonly brief, but it still hit home. While I’m not advocating this experience as the norm, sometimes a simple ritual has surprising impact – without time for our minds to wander or grow complacent, its power has a fighting chance to change us.
Why We Love Our Catholic Faith. Maybe at the heart of this list, we find not only what we love about ashes and what we love about Lent, but what we love about Catholicism itself: a strong identity that creates a sense of belonging, the power of the Cross and the touch of a mediator, a realistic sense of sin and death, an awareness that we have to work hard right along with God’s transforming grace, the holiness of old things, the connectedness of all truths, and sometimes, that good-old-fashioned Catholic satisfaction in following the because-it’s-good-for-you rules handed down by our beloved Church.
So if you work at a parish and you don’t think you can take one more phone call, or if you see your neighbors “ashed up” but you never even knew they were Catholic, or if the person in the pew next to you heads for the door before the Eucharistic Prayer, try to call to mind the power of ashes. On this day, we share a bond, a visible bond. On this day, we are so very proud to be Catholic.
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This piece was originally published in St. Anthony Messenger magazine, February 2016.