Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Getting Ashes

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. That Lent itself would survive the 1960s liturgical demolition of the Roman Rite was probably never seriously in doubt, but Ash Wednesday's fate was evidently much more so. For some, the fact that the archaic Roman Lent once-upon-a-time began on Quadragesima Sunday (as it still does in MIlan, where the ancient Ambrosian Rite still holds sway) counted strongly against Ash Wednesday's retention. Popularity - and an obvious point of connection with the intersection of popular piety and contemporary secularity - had obviously not been enough to save Saint Valentine's Day, but they did thankfully suffice to salvage Ash Wednesday, which remains certainly one of the most popular - and best attended - days in the Church's entire calendar. 

The day's popularity is obviously an enormous pastoral advantage, although an advantage that is not without its challenges. Thus, for example, in a recent pastoral letter New York's vicar general called Ash Wednesday "a valuable opportunity to set a tone for the entire season, as well as to reach out to people, some of whom are usually not often found in our churches," while at the same time recognizing the enormous challenges this creates "to catechize the faithful on the penitential character of Lent and the value of their Lenten practices.”

In my 10 years as a priest in midtown Manhattan, Ash Wednesday was assuredly one of our best days. Ashes were distributed, more or less non-stop, from 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. Perhaps 2000+ people passed through the church that day to get their ashes. I remember once when the parish office got a call asking whether we would start giving ashes at midnight, which made me wonder whether the caller was confusing Ash Wednesday with Christmas! From a marketing point of view, I suppose, offering ashes at midnight might be a great attraction. Who knows how many might respond to the chance to be the first on one's block to get ashes?

For many of those who come to get ashes on Ash Wednesday, it is a devoutly religiously spiritual experience. For others it may be a badge of a still somewhat important (but possibly fraying) Catholic identity or maybe just an exercise in annual nostalgia. For still others, who can even guess what multitude of complex meanings and imaginings the reception of ashes may have? On the other hand, who can deny the power of God's grace that must surely be at work in drawing so many to church to get those much desired ashes?

Ash Wednesday is but the beginning of Lent. The common contrast between the multitudes coming to church on Ash Wednesday and the typically much more modest attendance at Mass on the Thursday following speaks volumes both about the popularity of Ash Wednesday and about its limitations. According to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments: The use of ashes is a survival from an ancient rite according to which converted sinners submitted themselves to canonical penance. The act of putting on penance symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God. Far from being meant as a badge of Catholic identity, the reception of ashes is intended to serve as a powerful external sign of the Lenten season’s serious challenge to each of us to re-examine our own familiar patterns of life in light of Christ’s call to repentance and a new life of holiness.

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