It must seem odd to those who are not Christian. On one Wednesday every year, we can observe people walking around with ashes on their foreheads. They are supposed to be in the shape of a cross, but many times they end up looking more like a big black blob. And people have this mark on their forehead throughout all of their normal daily activities- at school, at work, at the gym. If you go to the supermarket or the doctor’s office, there’s sure to be plenty of people with blobs on their heads! When you think about, it’s pretty strange.
Of course, on Ash Wednesday, just like Palm Sunday (hence the name A&P Catholics- those who only go to church to get their ashes and palms), a lot of people feel the need to go to church, even if they do not go on a regular basis. Hence, many ask why some people care so much about getting ashes when they do not bother to pray, or go to church on Sundays, and even, in the case of some, when they are not sure they even believe in God or want to be Catholic. Yet, to me, there is something beautiful about this “need” to get ashes. Something compels us to do it, Something beyond us that we cannot quite explain. We may not always “act” like believers, but some small part of us “believes.”
Ash Wednesday also reminds us that through our mutual observance of the beginning of Lent, we are united with Christians all over the world. I love thinking about all the different places I’ve received ashes in my life based on where I was or what I was doing. In elementary school, I can still remember the mass exodus of Catholic kids heading to the local church across the street after the bell rang. During college at Fordham, I have fond memories of being a cantor at the evening Ash Wednesday mass. During my masters degree at Harvard, which was my first time in a non-Catholic environment, I remember being so excited that I was receiving ashes from the Lutherans one year, and the Presbyterians another. Every year, I also seem to exchange stories with my family, “Where did you get your ashes this year? Who said the mass or lead the service? Did you see anyone we know? …. ”
This year at Boston College, I went to the 12:15pm liturgy at the School of Theology and Ministry. It was refreshing to go to my office across campus afterwards, and to see the ashes on the foreheads of many of my colleagues. In spite of all the suffering and anxiety in the world, in spite of the fact that our faith in God is constantly challenged, faith still exists. Even if it is the size of a “mustard seed,” it is there. And even faith the size of a “mustard seed” is big enough to keep growing and to accomplish great things.
“Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”