I was a religion reporter for a daily newspaper for several years, and I wrote dozens of stories about Ash Wednesday. The editors always wanted one, if only to explain the dark smudges that readers would see on peoples’ foreheads for the rest of the day. It was also an easy assignment to sell to photo editors. Unlike most religion stories that were about ideas or ordinary actions (stocking a food bank, visiting the sick, even praying and preaching), Ash Wednesday presented lots of photo opportunities: the faithful of all ages standing in line for ashes, weathered hands smudging youthful foreheads, a thumb dipped into a bowl of black ash.
Priests I know joke about how crowded Catholic Churches can be on Ash Wednesday. The cynics among them suspect they won’t see most of the people who line up for ashes in line for Eucharist any time soon. Ash Wednesday isn’t a holy day of obligation, they say, but it’s a day Catholics show up because they are getting something for free at Mass. Even if it's only ashes.
I have my own theory about Ash Wednesday. In a church where the formal rite of confession is slowly fading away (4 in 10 Catholics say they receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year, according to the Pew Research Center), I think many Catholics come to church on Ash Wednesday because deep down they want someone to look them in the eye and remind them that they are, like ashes, dust. Followed quickly by a reminder that they can turn away from sin, they can repent. Once a year, on Ash Wednesday, this call to conversion comes illustrated with a black smudge.
Of course, repentance is part of every Mass, but if you don’t go to church very often, you forget or overlook that. For many people, whether they acknowledge it or not, Ash Wednesday is a moment of truth with a tangible receipt. How it changes our lives depends on us.
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