Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is a day when you can tell who the Roman Catholics are. This is a day when many Catholics pack the pews - including quite a few who seldom go to Mass otherwise - in order to acknowledge that they are sinners redeemed by a loving God. Bearing the distinctive smudge of ashes on their foreheads, Catholics go forth on Ash Wednesday to subtly announce to others that they recognize themselves as sinful people in need of God's compassionate help and forgiveness. Despite being a cradle Catholic and having spent most of my life in places where Catholics are numerous, I still experience a kind of shock at the multitude of ash-smudged foreheads I encounter each year on Ash Wednesday. The shock, I believe, comes in seeing so many people who typically live out their faith somewhat anonymously make a very public and visible (albeit silent) declaration of how they see themselves before God. Ash Wednesday comes as a kind of rude awakening - an anticipation, perhaps, of the scandal of the cross and the joyful paradox of Christ's triumph over death which the Lenten season prepares us for.

No matter where I find myself on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent is always memorable for me. It's the kind of day I think of, to borrow one of Auden's best lines, "as one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual." Looking back over the last several years, I can still remember how I spent every Ash Wednesday - where I went to Mass that day, the things I did, the people I saw - and I can sense how my experience of this day has changed (and in many ways has not changed) as the story of my life with God has gone through various chapters and volumes. It strikes me that this year in the first in several that I haven't had any liturgical responsibilities on this day - in both of my years in the novitiate and earlier at Notre Dame, I was called upon to assist in various ways at one or more Mass on Ash Wednesday. When I went to Mass this morning at the University Church on Fordham's campus, I was just another Catholic, just another loved sinner - known to some, certainly, but on the whole an anonymous member of the congregation like everyone else. Returning to Ciszek with my ashes, I went back to my Wednesday morning routine of reading and writing conscious that today was not like every other Wednesday. I had my ashes to remind me of this, as well as the Ash Wednesday readings in my breviary and the growl of a stomach protesting against the Lenten fast. Another year and, Deo gratias, another Ash Wednesday. AMDG.


At 2/22/2007 5:09 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Of course, Roman Catholics aren't the only ones who mark with ashes...the practice is becoming quite common among Anglicans/Episcopalians, Lutherans, and others.

So, you can't necessarily assume that everyone you see with ashes on their forehead is Roman Catholic.

At 2/22/2007 9:59 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


That's a very good point - though the ashes are often thought of as a distinctively Roman Catholic practice, we're not the only ones who do it. My hunch is that most of the people I've personally seen with ashes were Catholic, but I base that conjecture on the demographics of the places I've celebrated Ash Wednesday. Even so, you're correct in stating that Catholics aren't the only ones to use ashes.


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