Every heard that popular children’s rhyme/song, “Ring around the Rosy…a pocket full of poesy…”? Many of us may have played games to its tune as children, but did not realize its hidden message. The song, first written down in the 1800’s refers to a much earlier time in history, namely, the 1650’s Black Plague. But why am I bringing up a children’s jingle and a terrible disease in history? Let me explain.
On Ash Wednesday, many Catholics attend Mass and receive ashes (usually on their forehead). This tradition has very little meaning for most people. Sure, they hear the words the priest or assistant says as he draws the cross on their foreheads (“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel”), but that’s where it ends. Just like the children’s song, years erase the meaning behind the actual text and/or symbol.
In most churches, the ashes are made from palms. The palms, used for the previous year’s Palm Sunday, are collected and burned down to ash. Keep in mind that these palms are burned for another reason (not just to make ashes for Ash Wednesday): they are a blest item. Any blest item (e.g. rosary, medal, scapular, etc) needs to be disposed of in an appropriate manner, by burning it or by burying it. The meaning of the ashes goes further yet, as we recall what the palms were used for on Palms Sunday. On that day, we hear that Christ rode into the city, where He was welcomed by a large crowd of people, who acclaimed Him as the Son of David (thus calling him a king). They used these branches as part of their make-shift procession, and even laid some at the feet of the donkey which carried the Lord. Now, these same ashes are burned, as a reminder that we have moments of triumph, but also moments of utter failure. Just like the people of Jerusalem, we acclaim Him the Lord and King one day, and fall into sin the next day. These ashes, then, are a reminder that we will fall and need His mercy.
When the sign of the cross is traced on our foreheads with the ashes, something amazing happens. It is as though the Lord takes our brokenness (represented by these ashes) and makes something beautiful out of it—the cross. The image of the cross, traced on our foreheads, reminds us also of the price paid for our redemption. If we truly meditated upon this, we would long for perfection all the more, since Sacred Blood was poured for a sinful creature.
Furthermore, it teaches us humility. I’ve seen many adults try to wipe off this cross as soon as they make it to the church parking lot. But why? Are we that ashamed of letting others know we are Catholics, and that Ash Wednesday is a liturgical shift in our focus? I had a student one year who inspired me. The day before Ash Wednesday, I had taught my merry band of third graders about ashes, and the tradition behind the action. My students were in “competition” with each other, to see who could keep their ashes on the longest, as a witness to their faith. Then came Thursday, and here comes little Megan with ashes still on her forehead! Her mother explained to me that she had refused to have her face washed, and that she slept on her back all night, just to keep those ashes on. Yes, it was a competition in one sense. However, the children’s zeal made me realize how willing we must be to do something different for the Lord. After all, being Catholic is not the same as being “of this world”. To further mark this point, Ash Wednesday is a day of fasting and abstinence for all Catholics (see my previous article to learn more). Fasting and abstinence are not popular in our modern world! Just drive down the main streets of any city, and you will be inundated with food choices (e.g. fast food restaurant here, grocery store there, etc). Fasting is not fashionable. Why do we do it, then? Because it is for a greater good—the good of our soul, and our salvation.
In the 1962 Missal, the Mass of Ash Wednesday utilized the following prayer for the blessing of ashes:
O almighty and everlasting God, spare those who are penitent, be merciful to those who implore Thee; and vouchsafe to send Thy holy Angel from heaven, to bless and hallow these ashes, that they may be a wholesome remedy to all who humbly implore Thy holy Name, and who accuse themselves, conscious of their sins, deploring their crimes before Thy divine mercy, or humbly and earnestly beseeching Thy sovereign goodness: and grant through the invocation of Thy most holy Name that whosoever shall be sprinkled with them for the remission of their sins may receive both health of body and safety of soul. Through Christ our Lord.
This prayer gives great insight into our position before God: the sinner before the just and merciful God. Ash Wednesday is just one day on which we come to the Lord, begging for His mercy and love. We ask Him to re-create us (not as one popular song states, “We rise again from ashes to create ourselves anew”). We can do nothing of our own strength. Without God’s help, we wipe off the “chains” of religion as soon as we make it to our car in the church parking lot. If that remains our attitude, or the attitude of any Catholic, we face a future in which our children’s children may forget the true meaning of tradition. Just like the remembrance of the Black Plague has been lost from the children’s song I opened with, the Church’s traditions can easily become just a nice or fun thing to do and then forget about. This past weekend, I asked a group of about 50 children (ages Kindergarten to 5th grade) what Ash Wednesday was. I had two hands go up. The rest of the children looked at me, clueless as to the meaning of Ash Wednesday or what it begins/leads to. If only two of the 50 children knew anything about this day, how long do you think it will take before this tradition is erased from the community’s memory? It has begun.
I do not mention this to make us sad or distressed, but rather to spur us on. This Ash Wednesday, wear your ashes with pride, and be not afraid to tell others why you have ashes (or, at times, a black smudge) on your forehead. The future of the Church depends on us adults. If we fail to hand the faith down to our children, how will they know? Who will teach them if not the people closest to them—their parents?
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down. Tradition stands on the supports of catechesis (literally, “echoing down”). Each one of us has an amazing opportunity to be a catechist this Wednesday. What message will you bring to the next generation—fear and embarrassment of your faith, or the courage to proclaim it even when it requires humility?
Let us pray for each other this Lent!