Ash Wednesday is one of my favourite days in the liturgical calendar.
As RC kids, we don’t have an outward sign of our faith in the same way as hijabs, niqabs, dastārs, kippahs, and turbans announce the faith of other religions. But on Ash Wednesday, we declare our faith with a smudge of ash on our foreheads. Like the rest of the world, Ash Wednesday has changed in the time of Covid. With the focus on social distancing and not touching other people, the smudge of ash, deposited by a priest’s thumb became… risky. So a few years ago, the diocese developed an Ash Wednesday policy. The smudging of ash would be offered as a sprinkling of ash on the crown of one’s head.
I get that it was mostly about the no-touchy part, but this has always been the tradition in Europe. Indeed, Pope Francis gets his ashes administered in sprinkle-form, not smudgy cross form. And as I was thinking about that today, the crown of one’s head has spiritual meaning across many religions. Consider the crown chakra’s association with elevated consciousness and enlightenment, and spirituality. Consider the head coverings of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions – Kippahs, wimples, head scarves, veiling, amongst others. And when RC kids progress through our sacraments, we get anointed with oil several times: At baptism, the first thing that happens after we get dunked in the baptismal font is we have our head anointed with the oil of catechumens. For baptism and holy orders, we are anointed with holy chrism, and the blessing of the sick and dying with the oil of the sick.
The Chrism mass, where the bishop of a diocese blesses all the oil for every parish within their borders is one of my favourite of the year. But best not to skip ahead, ya? That comes later in Lent.
This year, as we’re in a phase of resignation (and vaccination) where we’ve returned to some pre-Covid ceremonies, we could choose to go with the sprinkle method (just tip bow your head forward when you approach the priest to receive the ashes) or the smudge method (tip your face up). I like that we have the choice. I chose the latter because I like to see the cross on my head – I have a pride in my religious traditions, and I like the chance to wear them “out loud”. By way of the ashes, I like to recognize others in the big wide world as part of my faith tradition and my faith community.
This year, I went to the evening Ash Wednesday mass. Afterward, I attended the inaugural Community Wednesday. We had soup (vegetable, as this is a day of fast and abstinence for RC kids) and we broke bread together (Except rolls, because even if we’re OK with the collapsing of the 6 foot buffer zone, we’re not OK with having someone else touch our food – and I’m OK with that, too). We watched the first instalment of The Search and discussed what happiness means and what are we all searching for. To wit, the first words spoken by JC in the Gospel of John (1:38-39) is “What do you seek”.
At the end of the night, as we were gathering up our things and preparing to leave, two older women were chatting:
“Did you see Joe Biden today?”
The priest’s eyes flicked in their direction. This could have gone in several directions.
“Yes! He walked around all day with the ashes on”
“I thought someone would have let him wipe it off before the press conference”.
I was struck by the phrasing – someone would LET him. As if he would have been… what?… embarrassed? … by the ashes. Nope. Joe Biden didn’t wipe them off. He didn’t let someone else wipe them off. Joe Biden declared his faith and quietly kept it there for the Bucharest Nine photographs. At worst, people will sneer about this, mock it. They might (as a reporter did a decade ago when he was Veep), mistake it for a bruise. But I’m absolutely moved by this. The priest who administered the ashes on Uncle Joe (in the Warsaw Marriot, as one does) They celebrated mass in the Polish hotel where the president was staying) wrote on Facebook:
“Even the most powerful in this world take ashes – if they belong to the Catholic Tradition”.
So yeah, I’m as proud of Joe Biden for wearing his ashes on an international political stage as I am of my boss for wearing her ashes on a corporate/business stage (or.. Yaknow, on Zoom), and every other person who went about their day – as eventful or banal as their days may be.
And with that, friends, we’ve crossed the threshold into Lent.
Why do Italians sprinkle ashes on the head, instead of marking the forehead with them?
I’ve created a landing page for past years of Lent Project. You can access them from the Reflection Projects > Lent Projects option in the menu bar. Happy reading, friends!