Depending on who you ask, there are a couple of answers. Some are cynical and argue that the reason people come on Ash Wednesday is because you “get” something; the ashes. To the cynic, people come to get their ashes to wear around all day long to show off. They argue that in this narcissistic culture in which we live, people love nothing more than a reason to show off. Therefore, the receiving of ashes on one’s forehead to wear around all day is a way to proclaim to the world, “Look at me, I went to church today.” One can sympathize with this theory a bit, especially looking at the issue of pride as a result of our human frailty. However, I would argue that this argument doesn’t apply to our current atmosphere. Sure, maybe sixty or seventy years ago when church attendance was the norm of most Americans, people would have taken pride in the fact that they got up early to make it to church before work or school. However, in our increasingly secular “post Christian” culture, wearing ashes as one goes about their day is likely to earn ridicule from coworkers, colleagues, and fellow citizens. This is especially true with the increasingly militaristic atheists and leftists who want to attack any sign of the sacred within society. I would argue that the likely correct answer isn’t as cynical as this. Instead, I think the real reason people are coming is because of what the day truly represents; sorrow for sin and repentance.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the yearly forty day (forty-six counting the Sundays) period when the universal Church commemorates Christ’s forty days in the desert and meditates upon his suffering leading up to his crucifixion. Especially to the Catholic, this day marks the beginning of what for many is a period of personal spiritual transformation where the faithful take on various sacrifices such as additional prayers or giving up something one likes for the period. Some even seek to give up particular habits to rid them from their lives for good. It is a period when we are especially called to look inside ourselves and seek to remove sin and die to ourselves so we may rise with Christ on Easter Sunday to come and, hopefully, to rise with him to eternal life on the last day. Of course, this isn’t a message that we should only hear during a specific forty day period every year. The three pillars of Lent (prayer, penance, and almsgiving) need to be part of our lives all year. The fact is that, in probably most Catholic parishes, this is the only day of the year in which the message of repentance is communicated to them.
At most masses throughout the rest of the year, the message being preached to people is that of the “Gospel of niceness” in which Jesus is portrayed as being a nice guy who wants us to be peaceful and nice to each other. The fact is, however, that this “Gospel of nice” is a false depiction of the message of Our Lord and ignores that the majority of references about Hell in the Bible, and the idea of people actually ending up there, come from the mouth of Christ himself. To the members of the Church of Nice, Heaven is essentially guaranteed as long as we are nice to each other. In fact, they may be hard pressed to even accept that Hell exists. If they do, they’re likely to think that nobody actually goes there. In this, Gospel of Christ as taught by the Catholic Church for millennia is continuously being watered down and the spiritual life being made easier and more comfortable. What has happened to the people? They’ve quit coming, of course.
However, Ash Wednesday is necessarily different. Of course, many priests will likely preach the same message they preach the rest of the year. Even Pope Francis offered Lenten “penances” resembling the Church of Nice in his list two years ago with practices such as fasting “from hurting words” or “pessimism.” These things, while not bad things to get rid of, kind of miss the point. Despite whatever bad and feel-good preaching to which one is subject, the fact is that as one goes up to receive their ashes, they are still faced with the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” For many, this is probably the only time of the year in which the authentic message of Christ will be preached to them. That is why they are packing the churches on this day. The trust is that we humans were made to be in right relationship with God, it is the very purpose of our creation. Whether one consciously knows it or not and despite our inherent sinfulness, the soul actually wants to toss aside sin and cling to Christ. The soul wants to be corrected and reminded of the continual need of sorrow for sin and repentance. The soul wants to hear that suffering isn’t without purpose because Christ himself said “Take up your cross and follow me.” The soul doesn’t want Hell and eternal death. The soul wants Heaven and eternal life with its Creator and penance, in union with faith in Christ, is the way to get there.
Ash Wednesday is yet another powerful reminder that what people really want is the truth of the faith, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Of course, the Church doesn’t just do what people “want” to get them in the door. That has been tried and, well, it hasn’t worked. However, this wanting stems from the deepest desire of the soul of each person to be reunited with God. This is the reason the Church exists, to lead people to eternal salvation with God. When he commissioned his disciples, Christ said to them, “Go out all over the world and preach the gospel to the whole of creation; he who believes and is baptized will be saved; he who refuses belief will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16). Christ did command to all to love one another by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, etc. However, the crux of his message was always the salvation of souls and the building up of the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, he established the Church, the heavenly Kingdom’s earthly presence, to preach the message of salvation and lead souls to Heaven. Sadly, so many deacons, priests, and bishops seem to have forgotten this mission and have failed to preach accordingly. However, we can take hope in the reminder which this day provides that, despite the apparent failure to provide it, throngs of people still come looking for the authentic Gospel represented in the simple sign of ashes being placed upon our forehead.
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