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Delaney CoyneFebruary 14, 2024
A worshipper returns to her pew after receiving Communion during an Ash Wednesday Mass at Holy Cross Church in Nesconset, N.Y., Feb. 22, 2023. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

One Ash Wednesday in high school, I visited the third-floor girls’ restroom to scrutinize the ash on my forehead after morning Mass let out. It is an unofficial Catholic school tradition to compare ashes with your classmates. I wanted to know what I was working with.

The restroom was often an impromptu meeting place for students, and a gaggle of girls had already gathered. Propped carefully against one of the three sinks was an eyeshadow palette. A girl dipped her finger into the matte black shadow and patted it along the outline of the cross on her friend’s forehead, adding definition. She caught my eye in the mirror and asked if I wanted some. My cross was already thick and dark enough that I felt adding eyeshadow might be somewhat gauche, so I politely declined. Another girl piped up that she’d take some eyeshadow; she was worried about her ash fading throughout the day.

It is a radical thing to declare oneself a sinner, but on Ash Wednesday, we willingly wear that sign of guilt across our foreheads. We might even touch it up with eyeshadow. I cannot imagine writing the worst thing I have ever done across my face, but when I reflect now, wearing ashes feels similarly dramatic. Sharply contrasting against my February pallor, ashes signal my mortality, my sins, my utter dependence on God. And I wear them all day for everyone to see, as do many Christians. 

In a world in which the Catholic Church is often seen as morbid, strict and sin-obsessed, it is startling to realize that services on Ash Wednesday—which is not a holy day of obligation—are some of the most well-attended of the liturgical year. But as Jessica Coblentz, an associate professor of religious studies and theology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., told me, taking on such a solemn day together may be part of the draw. “There is something inspiring about discrete occasions when we make a point of collective reflection, repentance, and reform,” Dr. Coblentz said in an email. “Ash Wednesday affords that.” It can offer a fresh start, almost like a Catholic New Year’s Day, she added. 

Reflection, repentance, reform: When Catholics take on this effort together, we encounter a power that we could never find alone. And that helps us to look toward the future with hope.

Reflection, repentance, reform: When Catholics take on this effort together, we encounter a power that we could never find alone.

William Johnston, a liturgical theologian and associate professor at the University of Dayton, told me by email, “We all know our lives fall short of what they should be and what, deep down, we want them to be—faithful to God’s call in everything.” Facing our shortcomings alone can inspire caustic, debilitating shame, but doing so together allows us to recognize and lighten one another’s burdens.

Ashes were used throughout the Bible to “express sorrow or repentance or to intensify prayer,” said Dr. Johnston. It was a practice typically reserved “for serious sinners.” But, he said, “towards the end of the first millennium the use of ashes was extended to all the faithful, as all are in some measure sinners.” Consider the solace those few “serious sinners” must have felt when the rest of their community marked their faces alongside them. 

Lenten practice includes three key pillars: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We are meant to integrate these more fully into our lives for these 40 days. Each of these pillars should draw us closer to God, but also to our neighbors, a fact that is easy to forget. Fasting often gets top billing. A closer look at this practice can illuminate how an overly individualized, self-focused approach to Lent can distract us and distort our spiritual life. 

Dr. Coblentz said that fasting can become unhealthy and theologically problematic when co-opted by our self-image-obsessed diet culture. She explained that though most spiritual writers she has read have advised “fasters to keep their intentions in check and focused on God alone,” our intentions are not always transparent to ourselves. Even many people “with noble spiritual aspirations also fast with hopes of conforming to society’s body ideals,” she said. “That fasting appears to serve God and help us strive for a more socially acceptable body seems to incentivize many Catholics.”

As a teenager, I once gave up gluten for Lent. I could justify it as noble; my sister has celiac disease, so I claimed the purpose of my fast was to grow closer to her. A part of me believed this. But I would be lying if I said my decision had nothing to do with the calories in the bread, pasta and other flour-filled foods I loved. I have since realized that as I ate soggy lettuce wraps and turned down the snacks my friends offered me, growing hungrier and crankier all the while, I was neglecting my relationship with God. Instead, I was putting a spiritual window dressing on a very secular kind of shame. 

There was no moment when the lightbulb went on and I figured out the perfect way to approach Lent; I still wouldn’t say I have done that. But talking about Lent with my high school peers nudged me toward a deeper understanding of my faith. Even one girl’s quip about her own aversion to fasting (“I’m a jerk when I’m hungry”) helped to ground me in what Lent was really about—connecting to God and neighbor, and letting go of everything else.

Even five years after graduating from that high school, when I think of Ash Wednesday, I immediately think of how I was formed by my Jesuit high school and the clumsy steps toward a spiritual life I took there. How we celebrated Ash Wednesday was, like so much of Catholic high school, at once somber and awkward and reverent and beautiful and, yes, weird. We filed into Mass hoping we would get to hold our crush’s hand during the Lord’s Prayer. We processed to receive the Eucharist, our spiritual nourishment; we processed to receive our ashes, a physical reminder that we are dust, bound to die. After Mass, we snapped selfies of our ashes to send to our parents, assess our friends’ ashes, and declare a “winner” over the fish fry lunch in the cafeteria. 

I have sometimes wondered if intermingling the silly with the somber speaks to a certain irreverence in my younger self. But then again, Pope Francis warns of “Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter” (“Evangelii Gaudium,” No. 6). Joy always has a place in Christian life, even in these solemn moments. It allows us to face our own darkness in the faithful hope that Christ redeems all things.

Joy always has a place in Christian life, even in these solemn moments. It allows us to face our own darkness in the faithful hope that Christ redeems all things.

When we see the reality of sin spelled out across our foreheads, our fallenness becomes a tangible reality, but one that does not merely encourage self-obsessive rumination on our own sins and shortcomings. Instead, by knowing that we are not alone in our need for God’s love, a small smudge of palm ash allows us to reflect upon our fallen nature as human beings and our need for repentance and reform. 

Having a physical sign is very Catholic, the liturgical theologian Susan Ross told me: “If Catholicism is about anything, it’s about physical things.” Ashes are a physical reminder of our desperate need for God’s forgiveness. By making that reality clear and visible, they paradoxically invite a sense of relief by reminding us that we are not alone. 

Our brokenness pales in comparison to the abundant grace of God that fills the congregation, shared among sinners trying desperately to be good. “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15); we are penitent, yes, but ever hopeful. 

In a culture that so frequently refuses to acknowledge the very goodness of the human person, Catholics need one another to ground themselves in a penitential practice that is not self-loathing, but liberating. We need a practice that is always aiming at a more fully human, Christ-centered life. When we do this, the world can be transformed. An otherwise unremarkable Wednesday in February becomes a moment in which we are surrounded by people in need of God’s healing love and are reminded that we are not alone in our brokenness. In the form of a small smudge of blessed palm ash, even the darkest parts of ourselves can become a headlamp for those in our community, a beacon toward God’s loving embrace.

In the form of a small smudge of blessed palm ash, even the darkest parts of ourselves can become a headlamp for those in our community, a beacon toward God’s loving embrace.

Reflecting on those girls supplementing their ashes with eyeshadow in St. Ignatius College Prep’s third-floor restroom, I’m struck by the deep holiness I saw in them, the strange solidarity I felt, even though I didn’t join in. 

Of course, official teaching does not endorse augmenting one’s ash with eyeshadow. Dr. Ross reminded me that the ashes we use are made from burning the palm fronds blessed during the previous year’s Palm Sunday liturgy. Because of that, the ashes are an especially effective reminder that the 40 days of penance we are about to endure are always lived out in hope of the resurrection to come. Black eyeshadow is not an equivalent.

But then again, official teaching does not mandate that we wear our ashes all day either. Those girls would have been well within their rights to wash their ashes off at that pedestal sink right after Mass. Instead, they embraced them. Even if it was done in the name of lunchroom competition, they darkened each other’s ashes so that all who encountered them might see. 

It was at once playful and profound. Teenage girls do many activities together, as a pack, and therein lies their wisdom for the rest of us. We would quite like to repent in private and alone, where no one else has to see the ugly parts of ourselves. But when we repent together, as on Ash Wednesday, we find that the burden of reform is not ours to bear alone.

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