Ash Wednesday, the day to be unabashedly Catholic, is February 13. It’s the day when a smudge on the forehead, for those who understand it, means I’ll try to be better. I’ll do what Lent asks: more prayer, more sacrifice, more almsgiving.
Those who administer ashes on another’s brow can use either a formula emphasizing hope: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” or one of stark reality: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.”
Anecdotal reports say there are more Catholics in church on Ash Wednesday, which is not a holy day of obligation, than on Sunday, which is. Is it because Ash Wednesday comes but once a year? Some clergy will administer ashes at train stations for those on the run, assuaging their guilt for not getting to church and letting them call home to say, “Hey, Mom. Guess where I got ashes today?”
Even if other Christian denominations – including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians –also celebrate Ash Wednesday, sporting ashes seems especially prominent among Catholics. In fact, it is one of those signs of Catholic identity that people notice on the street and in the workplace.
Does wearing ashes suggest people seek to publicly identify with the church even when they find it hard to get to weekly Mass? Does it touch the need for community inherent in human beings, especially in a world which prizes individualism? “See, I’m one with you, fellow smudged forehead, whoever you are.”
If you watch TV, you’ll see public figures with ashes. This drives up the wall virulent critics of government who see politicians as on retainer to Satan. “How can they wear ashes?” they shout at the TV set.
Sacramentals, including ashes, rosaries, medals, holy water – material things that are blessed and remind us of God – have a special place in the Catholic community. Even Catholics who eschew religion on their sleeve often carry a rosary in their pockets. Just holding it can provide a comforting sense of the presence of God. A medal of a patron saint provides a sense of a special friend being with you. A statue in a room can catch your gaze in a quiet moment. These materials objects touch our emotional side, a vital part of the human person. We can rationalize about God, the uncreated Creator who began it all. We can be proud of the physical bodies by whom people recognize us – tall, short, blonde, brunette, Asian, African American. We live by the soul which gives us life. And all of this supports our emotional side, where we connect with another, often wordlessly with a smile, a frown, the look of understanding.
The sacramentals feed that emotional side. Ash Wednesday does so especially. We can feel a little funny with ashes on our foreheads, but for Catholics, that’s how we mark the start of Lent. Ashes don’t say we’re holy. They say we’re sinners. They don’t say we’re perfect, only that we’re willing to try. They don’t say we’re models of religiosity, but they do say we belong. In today’s world of loners and isolates, that says a lot.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh is Director of Media Relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.