Viewpoint: Is Ash Wednesday Still Relevant in the 21st Century?

by M. Francis Mannion

Catholics who show up for work after Mass on Ash Wednesday wearing ashes on their foreheads will likely be thought by fellow-workers to be indulging in a quaint and harmless old Catholic practice with not much contemporary relevance.

Indeed, twenty-first century Catholics themselves might wonder if the Church could not find a better symbol to remind its people of the frailty of the human condition. Yet who could possibly look at the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and think that ashes are an irrelevant symbol?

We who live in the twenty-first century sit on some monstrous ash heaps. Many are old enough to remember Auschwitz, Belsen, and Dachau, where modern civilized people like us reduced millions of their fellow men and women to ashes.

And there is the terrible blight upon the twentieth century of Hiroshima and Nagasaki–cities reduced most immorally to ashes by the fierce demon of modern nuclear technology.

Though matters have changed dramatically in world power systems in recent decades, we should not forget that if ever a nuclear offensive took place, it would be relatively easy to reduce cities–indeed whole nations–to ashes within a couple of hours.

The environmental crisis reminds us daily that the air we breathe is full of our wasteful ashes. We are reducing the natural resources of the world to ashes at a rate unprecedented in human history. The future of Mother Earth is not at all secure.

And we cannot forget the ashes anonymously and unceremoniously made of the countless millions of unborn children each year in our country and throughout the world–the hidden and most dreadful holocaust of our time.

Who, then, can say that ashes are no longer a symbol that speaks to twenty-first century people? In truth, ashes symbolize the worst sins of the present age, the most horrible deeds of which humankind has been guilty, and the great anxiety about the future that haunts thoughtful humanity.

So when we receive the sign of ashes on the day that inaugurates Lent, let us think of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and our waste of the earth, and the burned ashes of unborn children. We should take the ashes as a sign of the sins of our era, and of our sharing in often imperceptible ways in the attitudes that give rise to them.

When we receive the sinful ashes of Auschwitz, we are called to give ourselves in conversion to the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people, no matter what their race, color, religion, or sexual orientation–practicing conversion first in our homes, neighborhoods, and cities.

When we receive the destructive ashes of Hiroshima, we give ourselves to the work of peace and the radical attitudes of human fraternity and sorority. The Catholic Church–and each of its members and advocacy groups–must redouble their work in the promotion of political peace-making and non-violence.

When we receive the ashes of pollution and waste, we are called to commit  ourselves to good stewardship of creation in our use of material goods, allocating our own personal resources to the relief of impoverished societies.

When we receive the ashes of the burnt unborn, we are challenged by that very gesture to commit ourselves to what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of life.”

The purpose of the Ash Wednesday liturgy of ashes is not to depress us, but to convert us.  Those who live in Christ are full of hope. By the ashes of Lent, then, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Thus may we rise, like Christ, from the ashes of Lent into Easter glory.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Printed by permission for Catholic News Agency

17 comments

  1. Great article, but there is still one more matter to consider: the Gospel of Ash Wednesday. It strikes me as ironic or even misguided that we are told to “wash our face” so that we don’t give the appearance of fasting, so that the “Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” If we are to wash our face and not appear to be fasting (which the wearing of ashes once helped to signify), should we wipe the ashes from our foreheads before we leave the church?

    Another question to consider: will our actions on March 6 let people know we’re Catholic as much as the ashes we’ll wear on March 5?

    1. @Rick Reed – comment #1:
      Rick, I’ve shared the same sense of confusion regarding ashes on the forehead.

      A friend told me that in Italy (Rome? maybe an area outside of Rome? – I don’t know the specifics) they apply the ashes on the top of the head, so they are hidden by hair (assuming not bald, I guess still not as obvious if bald). I was told this is done with those words of Jesus in mind – hiding the fact that you’re fasting.

      In contrast in my home parish, when I’ve been asked to help distribute ashes we’ve been specifically instructed to get as much ash as we can on our thumb and to really make a big cross that stands out.

      Does anyone have first-hand experience of Ash Wednesday ashes being applied other than on the forehead?

      1. @Barry Hudock – comment #10:
        Clergy used to receive the ashes on the top of their heads, where they had received the tonsure. Most clergy no longer receive the tonsure, so the distinction between ashes on the top of the head or forehead is largely lost. The missal says simply that ashes are placed on the head, and with no mention of the form of a cross

    2. @Rick Reed – comment #1:
      There’s a qualitative difference between fasting and repenting in the Jewish scriptures which makes it appropriate not to broadcast or display that one is doing the former yet appropriate to broadcast or display the latter.

      The former is an act of mortification, the latter a joyful returning or changing of direction (shuv). The whole purpose of donning sack cloth and/or ashes was to indicate that one had embarked on a new direction and to encourage others to do the same.

      1. @Gerard Flynn – comment #14:
        Both Jewish and Christian fasting appropriately reflect an attitude of repentance, and repentance in both traditions implies a commitment to conversion and change of heart. Jesus in the Ash Wednesday gospel says that one should “take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.” His tone does not seem to suggest that some religious practices are for public display and others are not. When I was growing up we thought the blessed ashes were too holy to touch, and that God or the Church might be upset if we didn’t leave them on all day. I wonder how many people still have remnants of those feelings…

  2. Two thoughts . . .

    (1) The assumption that only Catholics wear ashes on Ash Wednesday is mistaken. That person you meet with ashes on her or his forehead may also be Lutheran, Anglican, or from another part of the Body of Christ.

    (2) As I read Mannion’s litany of ashes, two other sets of ashes came to mind. One set of ashes, sadly familiar every winter, come from the remains of houses and apartments that have burned down, caused by a bad space heater being used because the gas service had been shut off for non-payment. Homes are lost, possessions are lost, and all too often, lives are lost. In communities scarred by such events, the ashes of Ash Wednesday are a visceral symbol indeed.

    The other set of ashes that came to my mind are those spilled into the Dan River of North Carolina earlier this month by Duke Energy. Not only is the river ecology at risk [pdf] (with both short-term and long-term effects), but so is so the livelihood of many communities along the river.

    Compared with last year, Ash Wednesday in North Carolina will be a very different experience.

  3. I have mostly observed Ash Wednesday personally, and it is not as fulfilling to me as it seems to be for others. It touches people. It isn’t a holy day of obligation; it’s in the middle of what is usually a busy time. In spite of that, our church will be packed, including lots of Protestants. I bet we have much more attendance on Ash Wednesday than we do for Holy Thursday. I don’t get the impression that those in attendance feel depressed; renewed is more like it. Anyone else find this to be true?

    1. @Charles Day – comment #3:
      Yes, exactly. And non-Catholics do have these services also. Wouldn’t have caught on the last 50 years if your take on the day wasn’t on target.

      Mark MIller

  4. We get many more people than a Holyday (excluding Christmas). It’s like a reconnection service for the many who don’t come to Mass often and who don’t present themselves for Communion. For all of them it means that even complete strangers will acknowledge they are Catholics. The ashes remind them of their first communion and confirmation, and of the second grade Catholic school teacher who was so kind and understanding. As for all those other kinds of ashes, only the left leaning Catholics may connect with them. The vast majority of folks, including well educated ones, will be hoping that Jesus really did on the cross for their sins.

  5. Beautiful reflection, Fr. Mannion. I would add that those ashes we wear reminds us of the consequences of our own actions, as you point out, when we worship other gods. At the same time, we hear Gen 3:19 (Remember that you are dust…) with hope because of Gen 2:7. We won’t rise from our own power, but because of what God can do, has done, will do, with dust, and a little water and breath.

  6. The point Jesus is making, IMO, isn’t about hiding the ashes, it’s about wearing them “to be seen”. Several times the weekday scriptures of Lent, and I would say the 2nd scrutiny as well, focus on the doxology, true worship, where the heart and the external actions of the believer are in sync. We’re not to be “actors” (hypocrites), but authentic children of God.

    1. @Rory Cooney – comment #8:
      Agree, Rory – at Holy Trinity, long time custom at Mardi Gras in which last year’s palms are burned and made into ash for use the next day – this is a liturgical ceremony outside which is well attended – folks bring palms from their homes.
      In hispanic and bilingual parishes, Ash Wednesday is one of the most well attended celebrations.

  7. I regularly give ashes to non-Catholics. When I was a boy, a neighbor who was Baptist came every year.

    Being humans, who use the senses, I feel that we need these type of sacramentals–ashes, blessing of throats, etc. They help us focus.

    People do use sacramentals like “Holy Magic”, as I call it. The true sense of meaning is lost to them. However, that’s part of our job, explaining and catechizing. Who knows, even if one person is using ashes to show off, someone else, seeing the ashes on the forehead, might lead that person to a conversion of heart.

    My worst “offense” was early on in my priesthood. The pastor was celebrating Mass. There were six or so people standing outside smoking right outside the church doors. When Mass was over, they came to the office and asked for ashes. Asking them why didn’t they go to Mass, they said they just wanted ashes; Mass wasn’t important. They just didn’t get it. I told them to go ahead into church and help themselves. They were not happy; the PRIEST had to give it to them.

    Others would call in and ask what the EXACT time of the Mass ashes were given; they wanted to get in and get out. My secretary once told me that a person called in and said that he couldn’t get to Mass and was it ok to use Grandma’s ashes that were sitting on the mantelpiece (You should have heard the phone conversation. I was told it was a doozy!).

    Looking back on everything, even with misunderstandings, Sacramentals can have an effect on people. Some people may not understand the real meaning of things, but they understand that ashes and other sacramentals DO represent something important. For me that presents an opening that may not have been available, otherwise.

    I may not have realized the importance of catechesis when I was younger, but I do now. When, and if, I use them, I always take time to explain as to the why of using them.

  8. For me, the significant thing is the imposition of the ashes itself, along with the injunction to repent or remember that i am dust. Wearing them afterwards is secondary and I think a good argument can be made, in light of the Gospel reading, for washing them off after the service is over.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #12:

      “… the injunction to… remember that i am dust”

      This has always given me much comfort and peace.

      Ash Wednesday is by far one of my favorite days of the liturgical year, and I never quite understood why it is not a holy day of obligation.

      Those in charge must have known somehow that people would come anyway, as they clearly do.

  9. My own take about the possible dissonance between the gospel and the practice of ashes has always been this: the admonition to wash the face was given to a society in which pious observance was a passport to status and respectability. In ours it’s more a witness to a minority loyalty and one whose respectability in the eyes of neighbors is not to be taken for granted.

    And while motives may vary according to individual circumstances, we have the assurance that “God looks on the heart” and will know why we do or don’t keep our ashes for our neighbors to see.

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