The Ash Wednesday Riddle

Yesterday I had to take my daughter out of CCD class to bring her to Mass for Ash Wednesday. Tina, at six years old, is no fan of the sacred liturgy: she dozed through most of it, and I had to wake her up for the reception of ashes. But she had made it clear that leaving her in CCD where she wouldn’t get the ashes would be a ba-a-a-ad idea, and as she walked back to the pew with a smudge on her forehead she just lit up.

My theory: She never gets to receive communion, so getting something along with everyone else makes her feel big.

In his homily, Father described his experience as a parish priest in Laramie, Wyoming. The U of W students rarely came to his parish, preferring the campus chapel, but on Ash Wednesday they packed the aisles. He said three Masses that day, but they were overcrowded. He added a fourth Mass, and that one filled up as well.

His theory: People need at least one day in the year when they admit that maybe they are sinful, that maybe they are to blame for some of the world’s problems.

When I was in graduate school, one of my classmates was a priest from Mexico. He talked about how the cultural Catholics of that country, who typically saw it as unimportant or even womanish to attend Mass, crowded into the churches on Ash Wednesday—specifically to get the ashes. He had to lock the doors when the Mass began or else most of the people would leave after getting the ashes and before the canon.

His theory: They are a superstitious people, and they want the ashes because they think it brings them luck or wards off evil.

Whatever your theory, there is something about those ashes. The ritual first appeared in the 900s in the Romano-Germanic Pontifical. Given the allusion to Genesis 3:19, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” medieval commentators described the ceremony of the ashes as

…the visible calling to mind of “the day of our expulsion from Paradise (Honorius), a public confession that “we who desired to be gods [Gen 3:5-6] are not gods from Heaven but men, and have our beginning from the earth (Sicard). – James Monti, A Sense of the Sacred

That’s what does it? Back where my parents live, in Little Rock, Ash Wednesday draws a bigger crowd than Easter—and Easter is mandatory! The wisdom of our day says we need to make church attractive and welcoming so the people will want to come. What marketing committee would ever have come up with Ash Wednesday?

“Here’s what we’ll do: we’ll have them come up in lines, and we’ll tell them, one-by-one and to their faces, YOU’RE GONNA DIE. People will love this—they’ll eat it up!”

But it works. What’s your theory?

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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