Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What is it about Ash Wednesday?

In conversation with a recent convert last week, he said, "There's never been a better time to come back to the Catholic Church!"  I asked what he meant.  "Since we made all those changes in the Mass last fall [implementing the new English translation of the Roman Missal], even the regular Catholics are lost and confused.  So if you've been away a long time and are worried that you won't know what you're doing, right now is the best chance you'll ever have of blending in."  

I think he may be onto something...

   Ash Wednesday   

What is it about Ash Wednesday?

My first Ash Wednesday as a parish priest, I went to make a visit at the hospital.  I was quite taken aback as everywhere I turned there was someone else—patient, visitor, doctor, nurse—asking me, “Father, have got any ashes?”  Like I just carry a pocketful of them around with me, ready to mark any ol’ forehead I meet!  I was even more startled when I returned to visit the hospital that Friday…and got hit with the same question.  “But I couldn’t make it to church, Father!”  “I know…but it’s Ash Wednesday…”

This is not simply a North Country phenomenon, either.  Every year, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral down in Manhattan, the line of people looking for ashes today winds its way right out the door and around the city block.

What is it about Ash Wednesday?

Over the years, I’ve discussed that very question with my brother priests more times than I count.  Why does today—like Christmas, like Easter—seem to bring Catholics right out of the woodwork?

The most common theory I hear is that it’s because we’re giving something out for free.  It may only be a dirty smudge on your forehead…but there’s no charge.  And who among us doesn’t like to get a bargain?  I guess I’ve always figured your motives were a little higher than that.

Maybe it’s because, deep down, we know we need a regular reminder of our mortality.  Remember—the ashes so poignantly tell us—that you were made from the dust of the earth, and to that earth, to dust, you will most certainly one day return.

Maybe it’s because this conspicuous sign is such a distinctive and visible reminder of our Catholic faith.  (Seems every year that some Catholic politician gets called out for wearing ashes while on the job, doesn’t it?)  This would be a rather ironic reason, though, since Jesus just warned us in the gospel not to perform our religious duties for others to see, that we might then win their praise.   The only attention we should be seeking is that of our Father in heaven.

What is it about Ash Wednesday?

Discussing this very question last night, I came up with my own new theory.  Since ashes and Ash Wednesday are all about sin, maybe—just maybe—this is the day that all those whose lifestyle and values don’t quite jive with those of the Church, those who take issue with her teachings, those who don’t regularly get here to Mass…maybe because today is so clearly for sinners, this is the day that all of us sinners really feel like we belong here.  This is our day!  Today, we're right at home.

My friends, if this is what it comes down to, then I’m more than willing to carry around a pocketful of ashes with me at all times, smearing foreheads whenever and wherever necessary!

We must remember that the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and all the spiritual treasures of the Church—these are not rewards reserved for the righteous, but healing medicine for our sin-sick souls.  Just as we don’t restrict our sinning to one day a year, neither does God restrict his mercy to Ash Wednesday.  This is where sinners belong not just one day, but all 366 days a year.  (Don’t forget it’s a leap year!)

Like St. Paul, I come before you on this Ash Wednesday as an ambassador for Christ, and I appeal to you: Be reconciled to God!  Now, indeed is a very acceptable time!  Now is the day of salvation!  But every day, in fact, can be a day of salvation, if we only turn our hearts back to God.

1 comment:

muffin24 said...

It may seem like a dirty smudge in fact someone posted on my facebook wall why everyone had dirty smudges on our face. You know to me its so much more than that. This is the first time i have ever read on Ash wednesday mass and i gotta say i wanted to speak with compassion and share the love of Christ and almost make my voice plead with them to come back to him that i didnt care if they were there just to make it look good or they came like they always do every day for a mass i wanted to let them know that God loves them Jesus loves them enough to die for them and He is always ready to forgive. Those ashes on my forehead to me anyway mean that I am truly very sorry for my sins and what i have failed to do and want to come back to Him cause he never left it was me who left. He wants us back and i hope who ever reads this believes me when i say HE Loves us, so much he shed his blood for us and is coming back for us one day be watchful be ready and repentent. God doesnt search the outside appearance but the searches the hearts and minds of those who do want him.