Sunday, February 10, 2013

"Getting" Ash Wednesday

More people go to Church on Ash Wednesday than on any other days of the year except for Christmas and Easter.  Getting ashes is as sign of the times.

But what does it mean?  In terms of religious expectations, Sunday Mass attendance is required and expected of Catholics, and Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation.  So why do more Catholics come out for Ash Wednesday than for any given Sunday Mass?  What is there in this outward sign of repentance, this marking of our mortality, that draws people back to holy mother Church each year?

And what does this day mean to you personally--this year, at this point of your faith journey?  Sometimes it's hard to name or articulate exactly what we believe, but what would your "elevator speech" be in case someone asked what's on your forehead (that is, a less-than-two-minute explanation)? 

Perhaps you secretly enjoy the opportunity to let others know you are Catholic.  I love the bold, public nature of the witness, even if making eye contact with people can sometimes be uncomfortable.  Perhaps being marked by the sign of the world's salvation brings you back to the gift of having been claimed for Christ in Baptism.  Or maybe Ash Wednesday feels like the one day of the year when good, old-fashioned sinners like you and me are welcomed at Church.  (Of course, the point is that sinners are always welcome; G.K. Chesterton maintained that being a sinner was what made him eligible for membership in the Church!)  No one is perfect, after all, and perhaps the call to follow Christ wholeheartedly can seem like a daunting task; so maybe receiving ashes is the humble recognition that we just can't do it on our own.

Or maybe you like the way that this outward physical sign reflects your deepest inward dispositions; maybe the ashes simply reflect the hope that this year will be better than last.  Ashes remind me that this year, this Lent, I want to do open myself to God's grace.  I want to do God's will in each moment of each day, and I want to turn back in all honesty when I don't.

Ash Wednesday is a great conversation starter because there's no one right answer--and no wrong answers--to the question of why people fill the churches.  Even more than the annual celebration of the New Year, Ash Wednesday stands as a day of personal reflection on the journey which is our life here on earth.  Deep down, we know that our immortal soul is destined for more than this world has to offer.  And our ashes represent our longing for more

Sometimes on Ash Wednesday we are surprised to see a colleague or neighbor with ashes (and maybe someone is surprised to see us with ashes!).  If you have this experience, consider complimenting them on their fashion statement, and take sixty seconds to share what you personally get out of Ash Wednesday.  Whether it's with high-fives or fist-bumps, or whether it's with a simple smile, let's celebrate this opportunity for real conversations and real conversions.  Perhaps it will lead to a discussion of where you go to Church on Sunday, or what you are doing for Lent, or when you plan to return to the Sacrament of Penance.

After all, as the good thief proved while he was being executed with Jesus, it's never too late to "repent and believe in the Gospel."  Our annual ashes are the visible sign of our sometimes unarticulated prayer, "Jesus, remember me..."