Category Archives: Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday’s Here? How’d That Happen?


Originally posted on on February 21, 2007.

Life’s pace never ceases to amaze me.  I know in my head that time goes along at a steady beat, but it just doesn’t seem like that’s the case.  Months and years become a blur.  Kids grow older and you find yourself thinking, “You shouldn’t be saying things that make you sound like an adult.  Stop it and go do something stupid so I can send you to the corner.”

So, as I reflect on the fact that it is Ash Wednesday, I’m thinking “How is it Ash Wednesday? I thought we just celebrated Christmas!”

But, nevertheless, I am incapable of slowing down or stopping time.  And so I must accept that we are now entering the Lenten Season and all that goes with it.  And, as with most things, I have a few random thoughts on this day.

The first is that I need to focus.  And it is my hope that everyone focuses.  What I mean is, an honest answer to the question “Why do we do that?”   It is so easy to refrain from eating meat on Fridays and getting ashes on the head today, and fasting today and on Good Friday, and so forth, without ever asking the question “What are we doing?”

Indeed, more than once us Catholics have been criticized for being overly ritualistic.  This criticism is unfounded in Scripture, however, as we observe Christ keeping the Passover and observing the Jewish laws and customs.  In fact, Christ even directed people to do what the Pharisees told them to do in obedience, but not to follow their hypocritical example in other ways.   There is humility in obedience, and humility in following the “laws” that our Church lays out for us.  And, it is true that Jesus relaxed certain laws, and had the authority to do so as the fulfillment of the Law.   But to suggest that this makes Church Law a sham is ill-conceived.  For one thing, Paul – a bishop of the Church – tells us to hold fast to our traditions.  Not to mention, we Catholics do believe that Christ established the Church to direct and guide us in His name.  Christ relaxed laws that had served their purpose to prepare the way for Him.  Also, many laws had lost their meaning, and people were going through the motions without thinking about their greater meaning.  This only shows us that certain rituals, obligations, or laws can occasionally be changed to meet the spiritual needs of the people.  These would not be doctrinal positions on faith and morals, but disciplines that help us live according to those doctrinal positions.  It also shows us that people have always had a problem with remembering that there is a reason they do what they do.

And therein lies the rub.  If there is one aspect of these criticisms that I do appreciate as being fair and on point, it’s the fact that too many people never think about why they are doing what they are doing.  And if that is the case, then people may be falling into a ritualistic trap of thinking they are saved by just doing things they are told.  While that certainly is obedient, it lacks the fullness of the beauty behind these rituals.  It also leads to the risk of loss of faith by just looking at these things as pointless rules that are placed in our path for the sole purpose of making our lives more difficult and taking the fun out of everything.  We should all understand the fact that such is not the case.  And if anyone reading this doesn’t understand that there are actual spiritual reasons behind the actions, then I encourage you to contemplate what those reasons might be, and then use this season to find out more aboout it.

Why do I get ashes placed on my forehead in the shape of a cross?  Think about it.  We are mortal.  The very words spoken as the ashes are applied should shake our sense of mortality.  Yet, the cross is a reminder that our mortality in one sense is no different than the mortality of Christ on the cross.  And with it comes the promise of Resurrection.  And why abstain from meat?  Why fast?   And why do we do what we do at Mass?  Why do we genuflect before the tabernacle and kneel during the consecration?  The list goes on.

Today and the next 40 days are a great time to reflect on the “why” of our worship both at Mass and in our daily lives.  There is real meaning to it, and it is beautiful in its constant theme of drawing us to divest oneself of the world and draw closer to Christ.  It is not the kind of detachment that says the whole world is bad.  It is a detachment that says, “All this will pass.  God will not.  Respect creation for what it is and as a temporary gift on your way to salvation, and don’t become too attached to it.”

I’m also always struck by the constant theme I see, and seem to be bringing to this blog: the need for balance.  For example, we read the Scripture today that tells us to not gloat about our fasting, and admonishes us not to go moping around drawing attention to ourselves.  And if we brag about our sacrifices, we have already received our reward.  Then, we receive ashes and our told to go out and display them for the world to see.  What gives?

Again, things are easily misunderstood, and context and balance are everything.  These things are about the heart.  Bragging brings glory to self.  And if you are wearing your ashes to draw attention to yourself in a way that makes you feel proud, then you should wash off those ashes.  But if you are “proud” to be a witness for Christ, and wear your ashes as a simple tool of evangelization and solidarity with Jesus, and offer this up for God’s glory, then by all means you should wear them until they fade.

May you all have a blessed Lenten Season.