Everyone seems to show up for ashes on Ash Wednesday (before Covid, that is). Some priests say there are twice as many people at daily Mass on Ash Wednesday than any other day. One priest, serving on a college campus, said that four times as many students came to Mass on Ash Wednesday than any Sunday!
Here’s a true story that illustrates the popularity of ashes. One Ash Wednesday, Father Rick Malloy, SJ, had just celebrated Mass in the Riverfront State Prison in New Jersey where he had had five times the normal number of attendees. He had distributed ashes to all of them. As he was walking across the prison yard to go home, a huge menacing-looking guy approached him saying, “Hey, Padre! Hit me!” At first, Father didn’t know what he meant. The man repeated, “Hit me with the ashes, Padre.”
So Father got out his container of ashes and began tracing a cross on the man’s forehead. “Remember you are dust…” Immediately a crowd of prisoners came and encircled the priest. They all wanted ashes, so he began to mark their foreheads one by one. Suddenly, all the sirens went off, the guards came running over with their rifles raised, and a booming voice over the loud speaker shouted, “Move away from the priest! Now! Do it now!” The prisoners began to move back, and the voice yelled, “Father, are you okay?” Father yelled back, “I’m fine! They just want ashes!”
So, why does everyone seem to want ashes? Someone has said, “Because they’re free! What else do we get from the church that’s free?” Others have said, “Because most Christian churches distribute ashes. It’s one ritual we have in common.” Still others might say, “Because getting ashes reminds us of our childhood. It’s nostalgic.” Or, “Anyone can receive ashes. There are no prerequisites. Just be a human being and you can get them.”
But I think there’s a deeper reason. One reason many of us line up for ashes is this: deep down we know we are sinners. In other words, we all innately know that we are not perfect. At times we are selfish… crabby… lazy… unkind… dishonest… greedy… impatient… hurtful… and the list goes on. Getting ashes is one concrete way we acknowledge our human sinfulness. And one way we let others know we’re sorry without even having to say any words.
I don’t know about you, but when I receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, I feel a real connectedness with others. As I watch others coming back with the ashes on their foreheads, I want to say, “I’m with you, Buddy!” Or “We’re all in the same boat!” I love it when I see a small child being carried back with ashes on her tiny forehead. I want to say to her, “Welcome to the human race, Honey! You may be innocent now, but eventually you too will learn why we get ashes on this day!”
On Ash Wednesday we acknowledge our need for forgiveness. We express our desire to be a better person than we are. We also admit that our days on earth are not infinite; they’re numbered. This Lent, as with every Lent, we have 40 days to pray for forgiveness—that we may both seek forgiveness for ourselves and extend forgiveness to others; to fast from selfishness in all its many forms; and to give alms generously to remind ourselves that all is gift. All. Even ashes!
Are you one of those people who want to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday? If so, why?
What might you choose to do this Lent to pray… to fast… to give alms?
PS #1: I ask your prayers for a Zoom retreat I’m doing for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Watertown, NY. The theme of the retreat is “How Can I Keep from Singing?” and it runs from Sunday Feb. 14 to Saturday Feb. 20. Thank you for your prayerful support.
PS #2: I want to remind you that my SND province is in the process of launching a new website–of which my blog is a small part. By April, my blog should be “fixed” and you will be able to respond to these posts again. I can’t wait to hear from you again! I’ve missed you!
Our song is called “With These Ashes.” It’s written by Gerald and Mary Chiusano. I hope the words speak to you today!
Thank you for reading my blog!