Joel 2:12-18Psalm 51:3-6, 12-14, 172 Corinthians 5:20 – 6:2Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.
— Ash Wednesday
It’s really funny about Ashes and Catholics…tell Catholics they HAVE to do something, and they stick their chests out and fume, “oh yeah? Who are YOU, the Pope?”
Sometimes, as with the issuance of Humanae Vitae, they even say it TO the pope. In a manner of speaking.
But tell them they don’t HAVE to recieve ashes, that it’s just a little thing, un-required, and they stumble all over each other to get to church and get smudged!
And lately, the Baptists have been stopping by in the morning, on their way to work and saying, “Smudge me, too!”
“See how these Christians smudge each other…”
Actually, I think this year the Baptists are having their own Ashes service.
I think it’s great. I love seeing the Protestant churches saying…”hmmm…you know….something to that…” and joining in. It is good to see that sort of unity and commonality among all of us.
My 15 year old son, Buster, and I went to the 7:00 AM Mass and then received ashes. Buster insisted on going, even though it would make him very late for his first class, which he loves.
Normally the 7AM Mass is about 30-50 people (yes, that many) and the number swells during Lent to perhaps 80 or 90 every morning, but this morning church was packed. Old, young, in between, women carrying infants, firefighters on their way to the station, nurses in scrubs. As we were leaving the church, folks who couldn’t make the mass were running in to get their ashes.
I realized, looking around, that Buster would very likely be the only kid in his public high school smudged with ashes. Very likely his teachers, afraid of being accused of bringing religion into school, would not be.
But knowing Buster, this is precisely why he was so adamant about receiving them this morning. Knowing him, he is going to spend the day patiently explaining to his savage classmates why his forehead is dirty, and feeling happy if he has to endure a few sneers and harangues for it. Because Buster is a kid who doesn’t mind standing out from the crowd – in fact he rather enjoys it – and because he is the sort of person who thinks there is value in taking some abuse for the sake of Christ.
I have no idea where this kid came from.
Anyway, with the ashes, it’s kind of wonderfully communal. Even though we have just heard the words, “remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return,” we leave the church feeling remarkable well and peaceful. I am not sure why that is. Perhaps it’s because we hear the other admonishment, Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel, in one form or another, all year…today, we hear the reminder that we will, all of us, one day die. As good a reason as any to start thinking about how you’re living your life, what your prioritities are, where your heart is, and therefore what you treasure.
My pal who is studying for the diaconate ruminated on the crush for ashes, and the new interest taken in them by Protestants, and mused, “There is something about Ashes…Catholics who are only nominally Catholic, and never darken the door of a church, HAVE to get them, and make a fuss if they don’t. So it makes sense other Christians feel compelled to be smudged. It’s odd — there is something so primal about this practice. (As one priest wailed in frustration after a long and taxing Ash Wednesday: “It’s only BLESSED DIRT!”) But it speaks to us in a profound way. Sociologists should do a study about it. Why ashes matter to us so much.”
I think he might be on to something, both about the idea of a study, and the idea that ashes speak to us in a very primal way. Tribes always marked themselves, somehow, and of course, the ancient Jews would heap ashes upon their head in grief or penance – so we have an ancient, ancient connection to the practice. And Revelation speaks of those who belong to the Lamb bearing His mark. And the Jews were told to put the blood of the lamb on their doorposts as a sign that they were to be set apart and spared by the angel of death.
This “setting apart” seems to be a theme.
And too, I think Buster’s need to expose himself as a Christian in such a way may be very much behind why so many want to wear ashes today, at the start of Lent. As Christians, we are called to declare ourselves for Christ, but in life, in the day to day, we are seldom in a position to do it. It’s not something easily worked into most conversations, you can’t really carry on about Jesus while you’re in an engineering meeting, and if we try to proclaim Christ “by our actions”, well…that can be easily misinterpreted from “that kid is a nice kid because he loves Christ” to “that kid is a nice kid because he is a boy scout, or because his parents raised him well…”
With ashes, there is no room for misinterpretation. There are no “maybes.” This person st
ands before you, declaring himself or herself as belonging to Christ. Maybe not the best person in the world. May there is a struggle going on. We are all faulty humans, and none are perfect save Christ…but you look up from stirring your Starbucks coffee and you see someone wearing a big, black ashy cross on their forehead, and you know. The world knows. Another one for Christ. And another…and this kid over here – the big, brawny kid, with the great smile and the pleasant manner…he belongs to Christ, too. And another. And another…