Ash Wednesday: A Personal History

When I was a kid, Ash Wednesday was one of those extra-props observances, like Palm Sunday. You walked away with face-painting and a few palm leaves, respectively.

Catholic rites are typically more ornate, more involved, higher-production-value productions than their spare Protestant analogs. Beyond the stand-sit-kneel calisthenics, I mean. A wooden, ritualistic pass-it-on handshake, hymns sung at specific times—generally doing double-duty as a backdrop for the less interesting parts of the service. The Transubstantiation: Catholics believe that the wafer of bread actually becomes flesh and blood; this is no mere symbolism, but the very core of what makes Catholics Catholics, and what the Protestants (well, most of them) gave up when they separated from Holy Mother Church. And there’s Holy Communion, of course, the eating of the bread-made-flesh.

When I say that Ash Wednesday was and extra-props day, I must point out that it’s also a very spare ceremony. There doesn’t have to be a full Mass, just a distribution. You queue up just like for Communion, but instead you’re getting marked with ashes from the prior year’s Palm Sunday palms:

“Man, you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”

That’s what the priest says when he smudges on your forehead a cross with ashy thumb.

I remember walking around all day with that smudge, and feeling a sense of belonging when I’d see strangers with a like smudge. Think of it as sort of a Hanky Code for practicing Catholics, or like seeing the white headphones and wires of an iPod used to identify a Mac user before hell froze over and Apple let Windows people in on the iPod party.

Inwardly, there was a sense of pride, I suppose, or rather a sense of impending martyrdom—or the histrionic hope for such!—while wearing the fetish of Ash Wednesday. I thought people would pick a fight, or make fun. I’d hoped with swollen and prideful ego that I would be challenged so! That I’d defend my faith and my heritage and my choice, and maybe someone else would learn something. It’s entirely possible, little martinet that I was, that I also believed there might be a Conversion or two.

But now, when I look back at it, I guess it was that one outlet a year to be badged as a Catholic without having to explicitly tell people I was—sort of like wearing a rainbow flag or necklace in the 1990s to signify that you were gay. Same kinda thing.

Now that I’ve not been a Catholic for a long time, there still is nostalgia when I see smudges. Oh, the Catholics have found plenty of other ways these days—largely through the mainstream Christian political process—to be out and proud Catholics, but back then. Back then it was the day you were given to be explicit about your faith. Those days of moderation are over, though, replaced with days of whine and rouses.

Maybe be it’s a sign of age that I long for simply, more gracious times, and it’s certainly age that lets me remember days long enough ago that I can be wistful and oversimplifying about the past.

So when you see the smudge today, also hear the words Man, you are dust and unto dust you will return. and note that this is supposed to be a reminder of the humility of the human individual and nothing more.