Ashes at Masses…what’s the deal?
Ash Wednesday is one of those days that must really get non-Catholics wondering about us. In fact, it even gets Catholics wondering!! There are many classic responses to all of those foreheads marked with crosses made of dust:
- There’s the person who fails miserably at the “I’ll pretend I don’t notice look.”
- The “excuse me miss, you have a smudge on your head.”
- The very blunt, “Hey mister, what’s with the cross on your head?”
- And then there’s the person who never notices anything, even if you were carrying a 12-foot cross.
There are even a few classic questions that Catholics phone-in to church offices:
- What day is Ash Wednesday?
- Is chicken considered meat?
- Is it a sin to wipe ashes off of my forehead?
- Can I receive ashes more than once in a day?
This unique once a year tradition of waiting on a line for dust must truly make people wonder about us. “You mean, Catholics plan their whole day around trying to get to church to get dust? Really? Am I missing something here? I can see for gold dust maybe…but ordinary garden variety under your bed dust?! I don’t have to wait on line for that…I know a guy.”
In fact, even well meaning Catholics seem a bit lost in the significance of the ashes. This becomes evident when people call the church office and ask the most popular question this time of year: “when are you giving out ashes?” When the answer is, “at one of the following Masses: 7:00 am, 9:00 am etc.,” there is usually a pause and then the reply, “you mean I have to go to Mass to get the ashes?” And then, with the thought of orchestrating a well timed appearance for a quick dusting, the follow-up question: “then can you tell me exactly what time they will be giving the ashes out at Mass?!”
Of course, ashes can be distributed outside of Mass. If someone wishes to simply bear the mark of Christ on their forehead throughout the day, that is a wonderful witness to the rest of the world of the power of Christ’s cross in our lives. Many people given work and school schedules may not be given the opportunity for Mass but want to acknowledge the start of Lent through this penitential practice and would benefit from a very simple service that includes the imposition of ashes. The point is that when Mass is made available, it’s an opportunity that should be embraced. Ashes are a symbol. Holy Communion is the reality of Christ. Ironically, Ash Wednesday isn’t about ashes at all…it’s about the One who raised us out of the ashes from death to life…the One whose cross it is that is traced on our foreheads in ashes.
Without Christ, the Bread of Life, we are nothing…we are as worthless as the dust on our foreheads. With Christ we are everything. When we acknowledge that reality as the ashes are being placed on our foreheads our very next response should be to reach out of our nothingness to the everything-ness (new word!) of Jesus present to us in Holy Communion. To come for “dust alone” is to leave with “dust alone,” thus the saying: you are dust and unto dust you shall return. To enter into the Mass is to receive the fullness of life in contrast to the emptiness of dust and death. We bring our “dusty” selves to the altar so that we can be transformed into a new creation through the power of the Eucharist…not unlike the moment when the Father took dust in His hands and formed us new as man and woman.
Besides, at the very least, considering the price of gas today and the demands on our time, wouldn’t you want to leave with a bit more than a smudge of ashes on your forehead to show for it?
The choice is yours: God or dust…Masses or ashes?!
Will keep all of you in prayer throughout our Lenten journey. Peace. --- Fr. Tom