Years ago one of my seminary professors cited a study listing the most well attended Masses of the year. The first two were obvious — Christmas and Easter — but the third and fourth most attended Masses were a bit of a surprise to me at the time. They were Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday.
I cannot remember the details of the study or who performed it, but after years of experience I must say I concur. My teacher followed up with a cynical comment, saying more people come to those Masses because they get something, namely palms on Palm Sunday and ashes on Ash Wednesday.
Let us take a look at the use of ashes and their history in our Catholic faith. Ash Wednesday is not even a “holy day of obligation,” but don’t tell non-readers that!
Certainly our use of ashes comes from the Jewish faith, as so many of our practices do. We can look back at the Old Testament and see many examples of their use, and when they were used it was to signify one of two things, our mortality or penance for sins committed.
The distribution of ashes in our Catholic faith reflects this reality. Consider the two formulas we can choose when applying them to the faithful’s foreheads: The person distributing the ashes can say either “repent and believe in the Gospel,” which has the theme of penance, or “remember, you are dust and to dust you will return,” which represents our mortality.
Mortality has long been a theme in our Catholic tradition and art. As I have mentioned before, some of the most prominent decorative characteristics in old European parishes are skulls, crossbones and full skeletons. Imagine if your pastor were to have a large skeleton painted on the wall of your parish! But that is a very popular decoration in Europe. The purpose is to remind us of what the ashes remind us of today: we are dust.
The ordinary minister of the distribution of ashes is either the priest or a deacon. If necessary, a layperson is also permitted to distribute. The ashes used are either from the previous year’s blessed palms or from an olive tree.
The Catholic Church has used ashes in its liturgy since at least as early as the tenth century, and of all the rich symbols we have in our faith, the ashes we apply on the first day of Lent are among the most powerful. But Ash Wednesday is only the start. This powerful symbol ushers in the holy season of Lent, which gives us a great opportunity to rely more on God and to get closer to him.
During Lent, many if not most of us will “give something up” as a small penance to get into the spirit of the season, and that is completely laudable and even expected of us. But sometimes our energy in that direction can be misguided.
I once knew someone who quit eating all solid foods during the whole of Lent and only drank malts and energy drinks, all along making a big show of it. That is certainly not the purpose of the season or the fast.
Giving up something like sweets or soda can become an issue of pride or even bragging, which becomes counter-productive to what we are about during this time of year. If we are to use Lent to get closer to God, there might be a better way.
Adding things to our lives and spirituality might be better than taking them away. It would be far better to have more people go to weekday Mass than to have fewer cookies eaten. It would be better to have more people go to the Stations of the Cross than to have less pop drunk.
We should be looking for extra things to enrich our faith during this time. Certainly our parishes offer more opportunities.
This is the busiest time of the year for us priests. I would challenge you not to have Ash Wednesday Mass be the only extra thing you do all Lent. Easter is the greatest and most beautiful day of the year on the Christian calendar. It becomes even more so when we put a lot into our Lenten observance.
“Without God, all that remains of man’s greatness is that little pile of dust, in a dish, at one side of the altar, on Ash Wednesday. It is what the Church marks us with on our forehead, as though with our own substance.” (J. Leclercq, A Year with the Liturgy)
—Father Richard Kunst