Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Catholic Nook: Ash Wednesday

It's a Wednesday, exactly one week prior to Ash Wednesday, so what perfect timing to discuss this important day on the liturgical calendar, no? I know that you're all probably making your plans for when you'll get your ashes next week. ;-) It's also day 3 of the 7 posts in 7 days challenge over at Conversion Diary, and I am on a ROLL! :)

So let's kvetch a bit about ashes! What do they mean, and where did this tradition come from? Sprinkled in with my own personal and humorous ash stories, because what would this blog be coming to without *that*?!

And so, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent for many Catholics (and those in some other Christian traditions). Interestingly, Ash Wednesday is a very western Church tradition. The Eastern rites do not have Ash Wednesday. Lent begins for them the Monday prior, with no tradition of ashes. The Eastern churches begin Lent on "Clean Monday," and they refer to this liturgical season as "The Great Fast."

Ashes have been used as a sign of penance and sorrow from the time of the Old Testament. Based upon this Jewish tradition, Christians started using ashes as a general practice around the eleventh century. During the Middle Ages, the pope would process barefoot on Ash Wednesday and receive ashes from the oldest cardinal-bishop at the Church of Santa Sabina.  He would then distribute them to the other cardinals.

As we are likely all (or mostly) familiar with, Ash Wednesday indicates the ashes that we receive, traced into a cross pattern onto our foreheads, on this first day of Lent. On that day, we attend either a Mass or a prayer service that includes the distribution of ashes, and the congregation comes forward to receive the ashes as the priest states: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," or "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel." As he traces the ashes onto our forehead, we respond, "Amen."

The ashes for Ash Wednesday come from burning the blessed palms distributed the previous Palm Sunday. The ashes receive a special blessing from the priest and are sprinkled with holy water prior to being used.

Funnily enough, I once heard a priest on our local Catholic radio station talking about this very issue. He said that one year, he was determined to make his own ashes to use at his parish, rather than ordering them the way he usually did from some sort of Catholic supplier (and apparently, the way all other priests do). So, he made a pitch for this endeavor throughout the year:

"Save your palms! After the first of the year, bring them into the parish office and I'm going to collect them all to have our very own palms burned for our ashes this Lent!"

Custom ashes for everybody!!

Everyone got excited. Little old ladies and children alike saved their palms carefully. They all brought them in, and this priest harvested them like precious gems. His congregation was so prolific with their efforts he got overconfident:

"Good heavens! We can't *possibly* use all these palms! 'We're all set everyone!'"

And then the time came to burn the palms.

*sense of foreboding*

Dozens upon dozens of palms were reduced down to...a wispy bit of ashes. There was no way he was going to get enough ashes to distribute to the entire congregation. Chagrined, he placed his ash order. :0

When I was a kid, I have to be honest and admit that Ash Wednesday was never my favorite day on the liturgical calendar. I felt very conspicuous with the ashes on my forehead, especially if we received our ashes fairly early in the day. I will say though, that growing up in western New York, non-Catholics here are very used to seeing ashes, since the Catholic population is so high here. When I lived in New York City for a spell as a graduate student, for the first time I had someone come up to me and tell me that I had something on my face. I was shocked, but thinking about it more deeply, I should not have been. New York is obviously a much more diverse city than my hometown, and as such contains a lot of people who may never have been exposed to Catholics observing this tradition.

I was always very paranoid about the ashes actually looking like a cross, kwim? There is always the danger of the "unintelligible black blob on your forehead" on Ash Wednesday, and as a child I longed for a very neat and tidy cross. This fits right in with my Type A personality, does it not? (some things with me are just SO predictable *innocent smile*) I also didn't like feeling the ashes sometimes drift down to my nose. I just had a whole face paranoia thing going on.

Happily, I have gotten over that, although I do plead guilty to peeking in my rear view mirror after leaving the church. If an unintelligible blob greets me, I ever so delicately mold the shape into a cross. :0 I hope this isn't sacrilegious, but an OCD girl has gotta do her best to cope.

Ok, everybody. I hope that you had fun dwelling on Ash Wednesday for a few moments.What were your thoughts on Ash Wednesday growing up? Adult converts, do you remember your very first Ash Wednesday? Leave me a comment!

I’m writing seven posts in seven days this week. To check out other bloggers who are doing the same, see the list here.


  1. As a kid I attended Catholic school so the whole school went to Mass and received ashes. I remember that we would ask each other how our crosses looked and being jealous of those with a recognizable cross when I ended up with a black blob.

    1. Ha! My son will get them at school too. I'm certain this will go similarly. :0


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