“Did you get your ashes?” Writing and Lecturing on Ash Wednesday

In the Roman Catholic church year, Ash Wednesday is neither a dominical nor Marian solemnity (popularly put, not a holy day of obligation), nor is its primary symbol, the imposition of ashes on the head, a sacrament (rather, a sacramental). Yet, as our Pray Tell readership no doubt have, like me, observed over the years, enthusiasm for “getting your ashes” remains strong across wide sectors of US Catholicism, even as annual participation in the sacrament of penance (“going to confession”) continues to plummet to newer all-time lows.

It has long seemed to me that this specimen of “primary theology” (theological prima, in the Schmemann-influenced-school-of-thought) warrants continued description and analysis. The phenomenon served as the case-in-point for the opening plenary address I gave to the annual convention of the College Theology Society a half-decade ago and has figured elsewhere in journal articles and, now, my most recent book.

But yesterday, Ash Wednesday 2022, I gratefully benefited from invitations to address the topic more widely.

America magazine yesterday published my commentary on the topic as the latest installment of their Faith and Reason series, “Why so many Catholics want to get their ashes–even if they rarely go to Mass.”

And I am currently on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, to serve on a panel during the Accountability, Trust, and Healing conference, now underway. But first, yesterday, I had the privilege of preaching at their Theology Department’s ecumenical Ash Wednesday service, followed by giving the lecture, “Ash Wednesday, Ecumenism, and Catholic Identity,” to a symposium of the Liturgical Studies faculty and graduate students.

As I describe and analyze in my America piece, various ritual forms of Ash Wednesday continue to develop and proliferate in Anglo-Catholic, Lutheran, Protestant, and other Christian groups, including the Ashes to Go, Glitter Ash Wednesday and Glitter+Ashes movements.

Certainly, these phenomena together contribute fresh evidence (case studies, if you will) for how inscribing or placing symbols directly on bodies (wedding rings , tattoos, baptismal water, chrism or oil of the sick, ashes) comprise profound performances of personal and group identity formation.

 

13 comments

  1. It seems to me that ashes are really the only Christian ritual in which we visibly mark the body (chrism is pretty much non-visible, unless light glints off of it). As you note, this might well be a part of its appeal.

    In other Ash Wednesday related news: my son, who works in a boutique burger joint, was amused by the number of people showing up last night wearing ashes and ordering their bacon cheese burgers. Clearly, the ritual floats free of the ascetic rigor it is meant to symbolize.

    1. Thanks so much for relaying your son’s observation. Yes, as with some of my younger friends’ reports, it seems that for so many this ritual symbol does become not connect to any prayer, fasting (or abstaining), or alms giving, even on that very day itself. I do think the phenomenon is ripe for a scholar who might want to do ethnographic or qualitative research in the field as integral to a theological project.

  2. A friend of mine brought up as a Catholic conscientiously received her ashes yesterday, and also ate a sausage in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Zwingli’s support for a sausage supper on a Friday in Lent in Zurich, an act which it seems has the same significance for the reform in Switzerland as Luther’s 95 theses for the reform in Germany.

    I think we have no idea how “folk religion” is developing in our times.

  3. I have always been mystified as to why the blessing and imposition of ashes takes place in the middle of Mass and not before it, as it used to.

    It is not a sacramental act like Marriage or Confirmation, where there is an obvious justification according to the thinking behind the liturgical reforms of the 1960’s: Word before sacrament.

    I understand that. But the ashing does not have that import.

    In addition, because of the ashing being in the middle of Mass, the beginning of Mass is different in that on Ash Wednesday there is no penitential rite at the beginning of Mass. My experience is that people get confused and you have to explain it laboriously beforehand.

    The Missal says that the distribution of ashes takes the place of the penitential rite. So if it is understood to be a penitential rite, why not have it in the normal place for the penitential act?

    AG

    1. I agree. I wonder if the reason (whether consciously or rationalized subconsciously) it was moved was a didactic emphasis on making sure people heard the Liturgy of the Word before getting signed with ashes … and then leaving. At least no one is tempted to sing the Gloria during it.

    2. I’m sure the aim is to have people hear preaching about the meaning of this day’s observance before they receive ashes. And I am totally in favor of it.

      Alan, maybe this hasn’t been your experience, but we used to have ash distribution at the cathedral in New York with nothing — no service at all, just line up and get your ashes. While this might have been reasonable at one time, it is really a leftover assumption from Christendom (everybody knows what this means and already subscribes to it). This just isn’t valid anymore. If crowds are going to come only once or twice a year to get something, they have to stay at least long enough to hear the Gospel proclaimed and preached. It’s maybe the only Christian formation they will get.

      Preaching deepens the content of this practice too. This year, I heard a homily on ashes as a call to protect the environment — something I never thought about, but now I will.

      Besides, untethered from the Gospel, a popular practice can easily devolve into superstition or an identity badge with secular content taking the place of the sacred — as for example when Christian nationalism uses Christian symbols to bolster their political agenda. This is a real danger. We already have a lot of that here.

      1. Rita,

        Thank you for that. I can understand the argument, and I too notice the disengagement of the ritual tradition from the more practical penitential aspects of the day.

        As to ashes without liturgy at all, well, enough said. I guess it was like Holy Communion on the hour every hour (or whatever it was) which was the practice at Westminster Cathedral in the 1920’s (according to their guidebook), totally apart from Mass.

        I was fortunate enough to have been brought up in the Church of England, where we did not have these deviant liturgical practices. Sometimes I wonder why I became RC at all!

        AG

      2. My question is: do we have a way of determining how effective this way is in realizing that purpose vs doing it as Alan describes?

        Another approach is that the ordinary placement of the penitential rite itself should be moved post-homily. Then again, that sits against the realization that the Confiteor originated as a preparatory act before the Mass itself before becoming subsumed into the Mass.

        Which leads me back to observing how many different suggestions we have to “improve” (many other verbs might be used) the ritual without ways to determine how effective such changes would be in achieving what is claimed for them. That troubles me, because I wonder if that functionally plays a role (and, if so, how much) in our liturgical culture wars in a counterproductive way.

      3. Well, Karl Liam, I can tell you this. When I worked in a parish, many people left right after receiving ashes whenever it occurred. Right out the door. So if you gave ashes at the Penitential Rite, they were gone before the first reading.

      4. Rita

        I don’t doubt it. I do wonder how much that would be likely now, with so many so-called cultural Catholics having left in the last generation, and whether it might be less disruptive to the liturgy if those that still did do so before the Liturgy of the Word instead of before the Liturgy of the Eucharist. That’s not a rhetorical invocation of wonder; I genuinely wonder, and so with my questions earlier.

        PS: I grew up in a parish where, the new pastor in the mid 1970s (by which time I was a teen) made a point of not handing out palms to attendees until after the recessional of Masses on Palm Sunday. His sermons on that day were especially long, of a fervor against the evils of the age that one might have associated with parish missions of the preconciliar era. I didn’t think his practice had the results he expected; people knew exactly what he was doing, and didn’t respect him more for it, but it undercut his pastoral authority.

      5. Liturgists have been saying for many years that the penitential rite should come after the readings, when there is a context for repentance, and not before. Ash Wednesday in recent times has been an example of how this was already happening.

        Add to that BXVI’s conviction, along with many others, that the Sign of Peace ought to be repositioned before the bringing of gifts to the Table of the Lord, and you would have a happy confluence where a penitential act and gesture of reconciliation and peace form a bridge between the Liturgy of the Word and the Presentation of the Gifts.

  4. For many years, St Peter’s in the Loop (RC, Franciscan) in Chicago was a news item for their ashing of tens of thousands, many office workers, throughout the day every Ash Wednesday, separate from the nine or ten Masses going on upstairs in the church. The ashing operation was in the basement auditorium. I notice this year that ashes are imposed only at the end of each Mass, in the church. I believe this is an archdiocesan policy change or enforcement.

  5. We had our largest gatherings–post Covid–on Ash Wednesday. And, then, back to the significantly smaller (but growing) gatherings on the 1st Sunday in Lent. Our Wednesday services consisted of two liturgies of the Word culminating in the distribution of ashes, and one Mass also concluding with ashes. Prior to being invited to come forward for ashes, I asked this question: “Are you resolved to turn away from your sins and believe more firmly in the Good News of Jesus Christ” to which each responded “I am”. Following this, the ministers marks each person with ashes in silence.
    The large number of people present indicates to me that this is a primary way in which people identify as being Catholic, regardless of how strong or weak their tie to the church and sacraments. Many, no doubt, come with a hope that this will be the year in which things will turn around for them. Others hope that this will be their best Lent ever. I hope that many–including myself–will enter into Lent to prepare for the renewal of baptismal promises on Easter. Laudate, Dominum!

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