The Worst Thing About Ash Wednesday

It’s always the sermon.

I don’t know what it is with priests, but they just don’t get it. Without a laughtrack or a commentator or a jumbotron we only have a four-minute attention span, and they keep insisting on giving us 10-12 minutes, even on Ash Wednesday at 5 PM when people tired and thinking about supper and the kids are getting cranky.

Yes, I did the 5PM service today. Just a Service of the Word, not a mass, and it was packed. And the priest – a wonderful, holy man, extremely intelligent and scholarly, and a really great confessor – had four minutes before we were dead-eyed and slack-jawed. I think he got us there in three minutes, flat.

This is the sermon I told myself, when I could no longer concentrate on Father’s earnest work:

“You people remember the movie Moonstruck? It’s the story about an Italian family in Brooklyn, a mother named Rose, a father named Cosmo, and their daughter…Cher.

There’s a part where the mother, Rose, says to the father, ‘Cosmo, I just want you to know that no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everyone else!’

And so is everyone in this church. No matter how well you think you’re doing, you’re screwing up, and I don’t need to tell you where you’re screwing up because you KNOW where you’re screwing up.

There’s another scene in Moonstruck, where Rose says to her daughter…Cher…’your life is goin’ down the toilet!’

So is yours. You only have the one life in which to make the right choices and do the right thing, and no matter how well you think you’re taking care of it, you’re falling short, and I don’t have to tell you where you’re falling short, becaue you KNOW where you’re falling short.

So, you come here, you get ashes. We’re glad. We like seeing you here and wish you would come more. But while you’re getting the ashes, think about it for a few minutes, okay? About why you came here?

Ashes on the forehead. Getting smudged. It’s a primitive tribal thing – it marks us as belonging to the Tribe of Christ. It harkens back to ancient penitential practices – it is also an outward sign of all we will become, whether we are kings or kooks: ashes.

What are you going to do between the time you get these ashes smudged on your forehead, and you actually become them?

There is another scene in Moonstruck, where Cher goes to confession and tells the priest she has slept with her fiance’s brother. The priest says, “that’s a pretty big sin!” Cher winces and says, “I know.”

“Think about your life,” the priest begs, gesturing with his hands.

Think about your life. Get moving on the things you need to fix. You feed your family, you feed yourself, don’t forget to feed your spirit. Consider going to confession yourself; chances are you have less to confess than Cher!

We are Baptised. We belong to Christ. The ashes say that. If we are doing this Christian thing right, it should also say that we are dead to the world but alive in Christ – or that were at least trying – that we are ghosts, wandering these plains until we rest in Christ in Eternity. We are Dead Men Walking.

But that’s another movie.”

Vanderleun has a much more elegant sermon!

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • roro

    and there’s much to be said for howling at the moon within your pack of simpleminded dogs, your legs tangled in their leashes, laughing at the ridiculous living spectacle you provide that immense watchful glowing eye,..

  • TheAnchoress

    Very true. And the immensely watchful glowing eye loves us unreservedly in all of our tangled howlings! :-)

  • Sissy Willis

    You forgot the best line from Moonstruck:

    Snap out of it!

    Listen here
    [edited to insert link - admin]

  • TheAnchoress

    Oh, man, that’s good. I’d forgotten that. So many excellent lines in that film!

  • Myssi

    Perhaps we need to work on expanding our attention spans, but your sermon would do nicely for me. :-) Of course, I’m the one giving up complaining for Lent so who am I to say. I went to my women’s Bible study instead of listening to the pastor’s Ash Wednesday message in my Protestant church. :-) I wonder if the Catholic priest here would have given me ashes…hmmm….

  • TheAnchoress

    A priest will never ask if you are Catholic.

  • dellbabe68

    That WAS a great movie!! How funny that it also makes a good sermon.

    Does anyone use the Little Black Book (for lent)? They have them for each liturgical season. Advent, Easter, and this is the first time I am using the Lent one.
    Each day is a daily meditation on a scripture, as well as some random (but related) factoid. It’s good to follow them daily. I get a lot out of it. I can give the address for them if anyone wants them. Your church might have one and ask a two dollar contribution for it. Well worth that money!

    I am amazed by the seasons of life. Yesterday, by happenstance and need on the part of a friend who lost his job, was an absolute pig out day. (Fat Tuesday).

  • dellbabe68

    “That’s Cosmo’s Moon!”

    “Old man, if you feed those dogs my food again…” anyone remember the rest?

    And, finally…

    “I’m so confused!”

  • vanderleun

    Dead men walking?

    Nay, say rather,

    Dead men working.

  • tkelly1478

    As a Catholic who has now worshiped in a Protestant megachurch for many years, I think the worst thing about any Catholic mass is the sermon.

    I think the limited supply of priests keeps them from developing preaching skills. A local parish here runs Mass every hour on the hour from 8-12 every Sunday morning, so there is not much time for sermonizing, especially when you need to turn around 300 cars for each Mass.

    By contrast, our non-denominational church has 13 full time pastors for a congregation similar in size (about 4000) to the local Catholic parish, which, the last time I visited, appeared to have only 2 priests. Among our pastors are about 5 excellent speakers, including one who travels on weekdays as a professional speaker and author. The sermons in our church are consistently superior to those preached in a Catholic church- even my mother, who has attended Mass every day for the last 20+ years, agrees with that assessment.

    So, while I really don’t have anything against the Catholic church, and attend it on occasion with my extended family, I don’t think it has a “competitive business model” and won’t until it gets back to the Biblical principle of church leaders “having only one wife”, rather than the non-Biblical celibate priesthood.

  • roro

    “Old man, if you feed those dogs my food again…”

    something like……”I’LL kill you with my bare hands.”

    perhaps one of those circumstances that meets the requirement?

    Best scene: when at the opera house the beauty of opera opens her

  • TheAnchoress

    tkelly, I’m not going to get into a debate about Catholicism – it’s not what I do here, but the reason the Protestants are better preachers, quite frankly, is because they are schooled it in and because the preaching is the biggest part of the service. At Mass the biggest reason to be there is the Eucharist. Preaching is ten minutes of the whole – it is not the focus.

    As to the other – it seems to me that Paul’s advice to “remain unmarried in service to the Lord, if you can” is at least as “scriptural” and as authoritative (perhaps more, considering the weight of Paul’s teaching and influence) than Timothy’s about “one wife, etc”. :-)

  • amcalabrese

    >A priest will never ask if you are Catholic.

    Ashes are considered a sacramental, not a sacrament. So they are not limited to Catholics. In the same way a priest may preform a blessing at the request of a non-Catholic.

    When I was in law school, we used to have an interdenominational Ash Wednesday service.

  • TheAnchoress

    Amcalabrese – thanks that’s exactlyright. I was out of time to go into it last night.

  • TheAnchoress

    Roro- I think the line was, “old man, you give those dogs another piece of my food and I’m gonna kick you til your dead.”

  • Gino

    QUESTION: “Why do millions of Catholics go for ashes on Ash Wednesday and don’t show up in church for the rest of the year?” ANSWER: “To remind themselves they’re Catholics.”

  • TheAnchoress

    Not sure I understand your comment, Gino

  • Jean

    Anchoress, evidentally your area’s priests give awful homilies. I’ve heard some of the best during the Advent and Lenten seasons. We had a terrible snowstorm yesterday -took me 3 hours to travel a 45-minute stretch of highway -and the churches were packed at 7 pm. (Followed by packed seafood restaurants at about 8 pm!)

    I’m sorry I didn’t read the sermon about Moonstruck. I lost my train of thought after the first paragraph. Seriously.

    Sometimes that happens. You know, I prayed some rosaries yesterday and I had to “do-overs” on a couple of decades because I got distracted and started just mouthing the words. That happens. Once it happened because a van started fishtailing in front of me and I thought I was going to get hit. I get distracted a lot. It doesn’t mean the Rosary sucks. It just means that I have to work on myself.

    One of my relatives decided to leave the Church because he was “bored” during the Consecration. You know, same old “do this in memory of Me” lines and all. He would rather spend his time listening to good modern music, hearing uplifting preaching, and meeting girls at church socials. At gutlevel, he doesn’t believe in the Real Presence, so the ceremony of the Mass isn’t worth it.

  • Bridey

    I agree that Catholic preaching isn’t all it should be — though, of course, we’ve all heard wonderful homilies from time to time — but I’m not sure about people’s attention spans in general. I mean, it’s counterintuitive, but I think people’s ability to pay attention is just fine.

    Movies are getting longer, for one thing — some of the most successful movies in recent years have come in at 2 1/2 hours or more. TV series are less episodic and driven more by extended and character and plot arcs than in former years, so that’s more demanding than a weekly dose of “Murder, She Wrote” was back in the ’80s, and video games can, obviously, require long hours of sustained attention. Even books are getting longer.

    So it may not be a lack of capacity, really. If anything has changed, perhaps it may be that, with so many choices, people are getting pickier about what they pay attention to. That said, the priest I hear most often is a just plain terrible preacher, but people seem to be pretty good about listening, or appearing to listen, as he wanders around the point. (He seems to have many other gifts, he’s just not a talker.)

  • roro

    yes, that was it. more graphic and specific. pardon my appendage misattribution.

    “At Mass the biggest reason to be there is the Eucharist. Preaching is ten minutes of the whole – it is not the focus.”
    If this is true, the service might as well be conducted in some language no one understands, for instance, latin.

  • amcalabrese

    I have to admit, I did not go to an Ash Wednesday service (there is a church nearby nearby that does the Latin Service on Ash Wednesday evening which I have attended in the past). However, the Franciscans have a church near my office and they have Ashes all day on Ash Wenesday. As I like to put it — six monks, no waiting!

    As for sacramentals, after my wife miscarried, she got pregnent soon after and asked my parish priest to bless her womb. Even though my wife is Protestant, he gladly did.


    Dear Anchoress,

    This is not a comment, but rather a personal request.

    I am an odd reader of your blog. I am neither Catholic nor Republican. I am a left leaning Unitarian Buddhist who usually votes Democrat. But I read your blog with enthusiasm. I like your honesty and your reasoning and your quotes, even though I don’t often agree with your political choices.

    I have a request. I LOVED your Ash Wednesday sermon. I am in the middle of writing a sermon myself (I am a lay preacher) to be given at a Unitarian Universalist Church next month. I would like to read, with your permission, a part of your Moonstruck sermon as part of my presentation.

    I thought, in any case, you would be pleased to know how far-reaching your words can be.


  • TheAnchoress

    Gabriella, thanks for the kind words. Sure, use it if you’d like, but a brief attribution would be appreciated. Glad you like the site. I like having all sorts of people reading and opining!

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  • newton

    I’m a Baptist, so I really don’t do Lent. But it is a good thing to sit back and think that our lives are nothing but “dust in the wind”, at least in the eternal scheme of things. And yet, God put eternity in our hearts, to remind us that we still have meaning to Him and a purpose to fulfill before Him.

    In a totally trivial, literary “did you know?”, have you read Gabriel Garcia Marquez “One Hundred Years of Solitude”? There was one part of the novel in which all seven or ten of this one patriarch’s illegitimate children (don’t remember the exact number) received their ashes one Ash Wednesday… and the ashes never erased from their foreheads. As a result, each and all of them were killed by something or someone at some point forward in the novel.

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