Why ashes?

What is it about Ash Wednesday that gets people more excited than they get for Mass any other day?

I’m conflicted about this.  I have been reading a lot about parish renewal and missionary evangelism, so I’m all about “capitalizing” on days like Ash Wednesday or other days that bring people to church and using these opportunities to evangelize.  Rather than complain about the Christmas/Easter Catholics, why don’t we make them feel at home so they want to come back next week?  How often do we shoot ourselves in the foot by complaining about people coming to Mass?  Whether or not they took our parking space or our pew, we should not only be glad to see them, we should invite them back and give them a reason to see us again.

But at the same time, let’s remember that ashes are not the single most important thing about today. What brings on these musings?  Here in this southern city, we had a sleet storm on Monday and below freezing temperatures since Sunday.  Coupled with a brief flizzard this morning, roads (especially neighborhood ones) are treacherous in many places throughout the city.  We just aren’t equipped to treat our roads quickly, and most people down here are gun-shy about driving.  And for good reason … one uneducated driver on ice-covered or even snow-covered roads, and boom, everyone is in trouble. So even with my mad Indiana driving skills, even I get a little gun-shy on the hills around here.

All that to say, many people might not be able to get out to Mass today.  And you know what? It’s okay, everyone.  It’s actually not a holy day of obligation. And even if it was, the Church doesn’t ask us to risk life and limb to get to Mass.

This may sound strange, coming from the director of adult formation for the diocese of Nashville.  And don’t get me wrong, I love sacramentals and penitential traditions as much as the next person.  I’m not saying Ash Wednesday isn’t important.  I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to get to Mass today.

….But why are you going to Mass today?

Why wasn’t everyone upset that they couldn’t go to Mass yesterday?

Perhaps it’s time to step back and remember what Lent is really about.  Will we be okay without ashes today?  Yes.  But will we be okay without Jesus today?

This post is not for those people who are not in the habit of going to Mass, but those of us who are.  Has it become just that…. a habit?  Do we go on Sunday because we have to?  or because we want to?

Are we upset to miss Mass today because it’s the thing we’re supposed to do to start Lent? Because we feel like we need to get ashes because that’s what we’ve always done?  Because we want everyone know that we’ve started Lent the way we’re supposed to?

Or are we upset to miss Mass today because that means going another day without receiving Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament?  Are we worthy to receive Him?  Are we longing to receive Him?

At the end of the day, ashes are ashes.  As one priest quipped, “Of all sacramentals, I think dirt is the lowest.”  Why are we so eager to receive dirt when we’re not as eager to receive Jesus?  Yes, sacramentals are good and holy. It’s great to go to Mass on Palm Sunday and get our palms.  Or get our throats blessed on the feast of St. Blase.  These are great opportunities to grow in holiness and are especially moving for those among us who might not be able to receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament for various pastoral reasons.

But what is a sacramental?  What is its purpose?

“Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1670)

So while sacramentals give grace, they don’t give grace the same way the sacraments do. Their purpose is to consecrate our daily lives, reminding us of the goodness of the material world and the ability for every aspect of our life to be holy and sanctified, and to prepare us to receive the sacraments.

We don’t receive ashes just to receive ashes. They are to remind us of our weakness and sin, our need for God’s mercy, and to shock us out of our complacency.  But do they still do that?  If you’re just receiving them just to receive them, because it’s what we do on the Wednesday following Mardi Gras, are the words “remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return…” calling you to a deeper meditation on your ephemeral mortal life?

Ashes are dirt. Blessed dirt, but dirt.  Catholics do some crazy things, but we do not receive dirt just for the sake of it. We receive it in order for that dirt to prepare us to receive the sacraments of confession and Holy Eucharist.

So if you can’t get out of your house today to receive ashes, here is your challenge.

Set aside thirty minutes of your day. If you’re snowed in, this shouldn’t be hard.  Turn off the television, your phone, and your computer. Make a spiritual communion, asking the Lord to come into your heart even though you are not able to receive His Body and Blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion.  Ask Him to sanctify this day and your journey to Easter, to give you the grace to grow in holiness during this Lenten season.  We’re not Pelagians, so we know that we can actually do nothing – zilch – to grow in virtue this Lent unless it first comes from Him.  No amount of dirt on our forehead – no matter how muddy that holy water made it – can transform us this Lent without Him.

Can’t get to Mass this Ash Wednesday?  Your Lent doesn’t have to suffer from it. In fact, this could be the most transforming Lent of your life.  I’d wager to bet Jesus would rather you spend thirty minutes of quiet time with Him in prayer, stuck in your iced-up house, than phone-in Mass just to receive ashes.

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