Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Great Ash Debate MMXIII

It's a perennially favorite topic for Catholics--to wear the ashes on Ash Wednesday or to not wear. So I figure, why not weigh in?

Simply put, it is an individual choice. People should do what they think is best for themselves.

Personally, I have vacillated over the years. Initially (when I first converted to Episcopalianism and later to Catholicism), I was all gung ho about it. Wear 'em! Show 'em! Coming from an evangelical Protestant background, this whole "external witness" thing resonated for me.

Then I ran across Fr. Philip Neri Powell, O.P's blog. (Yes, he is a fellow Dominican, so I'm biased to agree with him. ;) ) He is our perennial, self-anointed Ash Wednesday Grinch. Just take a look at a search of 'ashes' on his blog to see what I mean. I stole the image above from him; he stole it from Jeff Miller. We're all a bunch of thieves! Gives us one more thing to repent of during this penitential season.

He makes a good point, really. It's kind of hard to argue with the whole Gospel passage. Jesus' words are pretty straightforward. Don't put on a show when you fast.  And yet...

Most recently, I think it was last year maybe, the best reason I could find to justify keeping them on is that it is a sacramental, it is in itself a means of grace. Still, last year I think I went in the evening to Ash Wednesday service, so it was kind of a moot point for me.

This year, I probably won't make it to Ask Wednesday service. Pausing, while I wait for gasps of shock and horror. Maybe it's just laziness. I would have gone with my fam, but we have a few sick kiddos right now, so they're not going. As Fr. Philip Neri pointed out, this isn't an Holy Day of Obligation, so it's okay. I'll take my kids being sick as of late as my reminder that we are mortal.

But even if I did go today, I would wipe them off. I've been won over to the Gospel argument.

Anecdotally, an atheist colleague at work lost no time in commenting on some other Catholic here who was wearing her smudge. He turns to me and says, "but Ambrose, you don't have ashes, and you're like the most fanatical ├╝ber Catholic of them all. She's upstaging you." He also reminded me how he was raised Catholic and so on..

I do try not to be obnoxious and showy about my faith, but I am unapologetic and forthright about it. I'd happily engage in meaningful, thoughtful conversations with him about it, but that never seems to happen because he seems more interested in ridiculing religious people than engaging with them, a sad commonplace amongst contemporary atheists.

I digress. But a takeaway from his comment is that you don't need ashes on your forehead once a year for people to know you are "fanatical" about your faith.

I don't say this as a matter of pride but rather simply as food for thought. All this focus and teeth gnashing about the ashes is missing the point. People should be able to tell you are Catholic the rest of the year, regardless of what you do on Ash Wednesday. If that's not happening, maybe it's time to reflect on why that's not happening rather than focusing on wearing the ashes.

I'll also point out that in all my time seeing people wearing ashes and wearing them myself, including today--not once have I ever observed a meaningful, thoughtful conversation ensue based on, "why do you have a smudge on your forehead?" It just rarely works like that. Without exception in my observation and experience, you explain briefly, and people are like, "oh, ok.  That's cool/interesting/whatever/mumble."  And that's it. 

I'm not against external religious symbols by any means. I'm not telling you to wear or not wear ashes. You need to decide for yourself.  I just think such external symbols need to be a normal, natural, everyday true and real manifestation of the life of faith that you live. If you want to display your faith in some way, or you are bound to do so because of a rule of life that you live under, by all means, do so. But just don't forget that the Holy Spirit is the mover of our hearts towards God. He will open doors to meaningful conversations about the faith. We just need to be ready and listening.