Thursday, February 11, 2016


Today is Ash Wednesday. For Christians - some Christians, anyway, and specifically I'm thinking of Roman Catholics* - this is a day of somber reflection: it marks the beginning of Lent, a forty day period of self-denial (six days each week, not counting Sundays) leading up to Easter.

Ash Wednesday was a big deal back when I was in Catholic School from kindergarten through eighth grade. Our Ash Wednesday services would take place during the school day. We would march from the school to the church sometime in the mid-morning, sit through Mass, and then line up and get a smudge of ashes - burned palms from the previous year - on our foreheads as the priest grumbled "Remember man, dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return." After we headed back to school we would all laugh at each other's "dirt" for the rest of the day. We weren't supposed to wipe the ash off, or even wash it off before bed. Most of us would come to school the next day with clean foreheads, Usually.

I was in Florida for a Space Shuttle lunch near Ash Wednesday back in the late 1990's. My mom and I found a Catholic Church near Cocoa Beach and went to the Ash Wednesday service there. Later that day we went to a restaurant for lunch. The waitresses kept looking at us strangely, and eventually one of them asked us why we had dirt on out foreheads. We told them, but I think they were still baffled. Throughout the rest of the day, we realized we weren't seeing many people with ashes on their foreheads. I suppose in that part of Florida, Catholics - or maybe Christians in general - are a rare breed.

I went for ashes today after work. The service was packed. The parking lot was filled beyond capacity, to the point that we had to wait for all the cars filling the lanes to pull out before those of us parked in spaces could leave. It was the third of three services today, and the priest pointed out that all of them were well-attended.

Is there a meaning in this beyond tradition, a ritual connecting me to to my own past and to the lives of my parents and grandparents? Is it a time to muse on mortality, to experience a season of self-denial, or to ritually cleanse one's self in preparation for the celebration of Easter?

I don't know. But one thing I can say for sure: Today, I got my "dirt."

*Many Protestant Christians, or "hellbound apostates", don't consider Catholics to be Christians at all. Donald Trump tried to insinuate that Ted Cruz isn't a "real" Christian because his Cuban roots make it more likely he's a Catholic. Go figure.

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