What Is It About Ash Wednesday?

colbertWhy is it that Ash Wednesday and Lent remain relatively popular even in highly secularized times like these? It’s a serious question that touches on matters deeper than might at first be supposed.

The popularity I speak of can be seen year after year on Ash Wednesday, when people–some of them perhaps not all that often in church–stream up the aisle to get their ashes. Not a few then return for Mass or Stations of the Cross on weekdays during Lent. How come?

The answer can found in Blessed John Henry Newman’s insistence on the supremacy of the “real” over the “unreal” in religious matters. In one of his early, Oxford sermons, Newman remarks that it’s only insofar as people grasp the meaning of disobedience and their own sinfulness that they also grasp “the blessing of the removal of sin, redemption, pardon, sanctification.” Otherwise, he says, these are “mere words.”

You might say Ash Wednesday and Lent help to make this objective reality subjectively real for us.

That’s not the case with a lot of feasts and festivals that have religious roots but, over time,  have been drained of religious meaning. Think of Halloween. How many Americans today link this celebration of ghosts and goblins and Trick-or-Treat with the Christian dogma of the communion of saints? Even Christmas is in danger of suffering this fate–the great feast of the Incarnation all but submerged in commercialization and holiday schlock.

But it’s a different story with Lent. Yes, the Easter bunnies and chicks are out in force, but Ash Wednesday and Lent resist sentimentalization by the greeting card people and commercialization by sellers of consumer goods. After all, it’s hard to find a bright, chirpy greeting or a slogan for hawking merchandise well suited to a season of sorrow for sin. “You’ll look great in ashes”? “Be the first in your neighborhood to do penance”? It doesn’t sound quite right.

ash wednesday 2But the words spoken at the imposition of ashes do: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Or the only slightly less apposite: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Stark, uncompromising,admirably real.

In a way, we have here a kind of paraliturgy of prudence. Prudence? Indeed yes. Prudence in the classical sense that you find in an aphorism from the Christian Middle Ages which the Thomistic philosopher Josef Pieper quotes: “A man is wise when all things taste to him as they really are.”

Prudence is the virtue that confers that highly desirable accuracy of “taste”–realistic perception–in the moral sphere. It’s the virtue by which the truth, the reality, of God and the world become, as Pieper says, “the measure and standard for one’s own desire and action.”

And this or something like it is something whose presence people intuit in Ash Wednesday and Lent and what  brings them back year after year so as to “taste”–to experience–life-giving contact with the deep reality of  mortality, sin, redemption, and the human condition. Not so coincidentally, such people also are seeking an antidote to the grim escapism of secular America’s entertainment culture and its obsessive fixation on everything and anything except what is real.

“We are all sinners,” people think to themselves as they receive the ashes or make the stations, “we are all going to die.  Help us, Lord, help!” This year, like so many other years before, the season of penance promises to point us in the right direction for obtaining that help. Have a realistic Lent.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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  • Peter Nyikos

    The contrast between Ascension Thursday (before it was moved to Sunday due to meager participation) and Ash Wednesday in our parish is striking. Even though the former is a holy day of obligation, less than half as many people showed up for it as we have at Ash Wednesday for over a decade now. And it isn’t just distribution of ashes: the accompanying prayers and homily, together with the ashes, make it about as long as the Ascension Thursday liturgy used to be.

    Russell Shaw touched on some of the reasons for this contrast, but I am still a bit mystified.

  • Lynda

    I love ash Wednesday! I leave with a smile on my face, loving the cross in ashes on my forehead. I want to go out for everyone to see the cross in ashes on my forehead. I know what it means, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, so why am I happy I ask myself. And I understand it is because I am a Christian, a Catholic, marked for Salvation, for eternity with Christ by that very cross. It is a window, an opening to view into the soul, and it is black in there, full of sin and death and dead men’s bones. Saved only by the cross, the beautiful cross of Jesus, that from death springs forth the resurrection of new life, where the seed of His sacrifice for Forgiveness is planted and life will flourish, and so we care for our little seeds of Faith to flourish and grow. Why not just a thumb print, a splotch of ash… why the cross upon our heads… I do love ash Wednesday!

  • Marietta

    Well…I don’t know. Some people regard ashes on the forehead to mean that their sins have been forgiven. One of my co-workers even thought that the bigger the ash cross you wear on your forehead, the bigger the sin that had been forgiven (without having to go to confession.)
    Some young people also regard the ash cross as a sign of being a Catholic. As in the book, “A Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wiskey, Wine and Songs,” a young man was happy to know that the cute girl in the mailroom was Catholic, therefore, he was encouraged to finally ask her for a date.
    Then there is this joke about the big confessionals at St. Thomas More’s church in San Francisco. They are huge, almost the size of a closet. People jokingly comment that the reason St. Thomas More confessionals are so huge is because people there commit really huge sins.
    At least those sins are forgiven using the confessionals, not quite with the ashes on people’s forehead.

  • CDville

    I do not share Shaw’s romantic view. When I see pro-abortion politicians with ashes every year, I know that they are seeking public affirmation only. Many, of course, come to receive the ashes in true humility, but way too many miss the whole point.

  • Could somebody tell me if it’s just my imagination, or if the ashes have gotten extreme lately. When I grew up, (small town in Iowa) the Catholic kids would hit the “early show” and come to school with what barely amounted to an ASTERISK on their forehead – faint and small, and probably sweated off by lunchtime; but now (in Chicago) I see these things that go from the hairline down the bridge of the nose, and you can see them coming a block away. To me, it makes folks look like extras in a b-movie about vampire slayers….. so, has it ALWAYS been so extreme? Is it just the difference between a small country church and the big-city churhes? Is it a Chicago thing?

  • Terry

    I love your comment!