As the day that kicks off the Catholic Church’s season of fasting and repentance, Ash Wednesday can feel like a pretty somber affair. But I don’t see it that way at all. I love Ash Wednesday. It always fills me with a resounding sense of purpose, mission and ownership of my faith.
Ash Wednesday forces you to come face-to-face with your faith…by putting a symbol of that faith right on your face. I’ve seen a bit of back-and-forth about the recent trend of posting your #Ashtag image of your ashes on social media. Some people say it contradicts the Ash Wednesday reading about not doing flashy signs of your faith in public so that you can get recognition from your peers. I’ve never quite understood this line of thinking. Sure, perhaps when Jesus was preaching there were religious leaders and others who showcased their pious acts in an effort to prove their status and holiness. There are still many people who do those kinds of things today. But I don’t think Jesus was talking about getting ashes on Ash Wednesday.
If anything, wearing ashes in public these days has become an almost countercultural act that is more isolating than empowering. Any reaction of “Oh, look how holy that guy is!” would be dripping with sarcasm, not respect. In today’s secular world, invading a newsfeed full of polarizing political posts and vapid pop culture nonsense with a photo of your ashes is more an act of evangelizing than self-aggrandizing.
On Ash Wednesday, your Catholicism is no secret. It could be the one day a year that people in your office or at the store find out that you’re a practicing Catholic. Maybe they’ll ask you about it. Maybe they won’t. But maybe they’ll think about it later, and it will plant a seed that ends up making them go to Mass again for the first time in many Lents. If they’re not religious, maybe it will prompt them to discern some larger questions or at least want to know why so many seemingly sane people are walking around with dirt on their foreheads.
Beyond what your ash might do for someone who sees you wearing it, Lent is perhaps the most powerful liturgical season on a personal level—if you let it be. Much like New Year’s, Lent presents a wonderful opportunity to take stock and rejigger. The priest who gave today’s homily at the Mass I attended said that Lent represents God’s way of interrupting your life. This is a perfect way of thinking about it. Lent should upset the apple cart of your daily routine. It starts by making you wear ashes and turning your fingers black every time you unconsciously rub your forehead. Then you introduce the idea of sacrifice: what can you give up or add to your life for the next 40 days? It’s like taking your car in for a tuneup. Sometimes they change the oil or replace worn out tires. Other times they’re fixing the air conditioning or adding a new stereo. Lent is one of the few times when you can add by subtracting. You can rid yourself of that gunky oil. You can replace that flat tire with one that might be more expensive in the short-term but will ultimately get you better mileage.
And it all starts on Ash Wednesday. The possibilities are endless today. You need to have a realistic plan if you’re going to stick with it for the next 40 days, but you also need to believe that you are up for a true challenge, and that God’s grace is there to help you complete this sacrifice if you offer it up for Him. It’s not a holy diet. It’s an act of sacrifice.
This is my daughter’s first Ash Wednesday, which makes it all the more powerful to me. It is both my greatest responsibility and my greatest joy to pass on my Catholic faith to her. The ashes on my forehead are a reminder of my sinfulness, brokenness and failure—as well as the incredible truth that Jesus overcame the cross to rescue me from all of that darkness and lead me to eternal life. These are the things that I will need to help my children to understand. This is why I wear my ashes. And this is why I think everyone should see them–in the street, in the office or on Instagram.
I pray that you have a thoughtful and faithful Lent that leaves you more open to God’s plan for your life, more willing to share the good news of your faith with others, more aware of how temporary our Earthly lives really are, and more focused on what that means for the time you have left.