February 17, 2021
by Molly Mattingly
Creighton University's Campus Ministry
click here for photo and information about the writer

Ash Wednesday
Lectionary: 219

Joel 2:12-18
Psalm 51:3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 and 17
2 Corinthians 5:20—6:2
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Praying Lent

Cooking Lent
Recipes for Ash Wednesday,
all the Fridays of Lent and for Good Friday

Why do we use Ashes on Ash Wednesday?

What Is Fasting and Abstinence?

Lenten Audio Conversations

One of my favorite things about being Catholic in an academic world is the number of times we get to start over within a year. There’s the secular new beginning with resolutions at New Year’s, which I often repeat at my birthday (personal new year). Then there’s the opportunity to intentionally create new habits at the beginning of each semester, as well as the long academic breaks. The liturgical year encourages us to reflect and begin again at Advent and especially at Lent, the seasons during which catechumens would prepare for baptism at Epiphany and Easter in the early church (and now!). If you, like me, are one of those people whose resolutions peter out after a few weeks, good news! It’s almost time for another new beginning! “Behold, now is a very acceptable time.”

This year, the new beginning for Lent will look different, ritually speaking. Many parishes will distribute ashes by sprinkling them on the crowns of our heads rather than crossed on our foreheads. This way of wearing ashes has roots in the Old Testament and has been used by penitents preparing to rejoin their faith community for ages; it is still the common practice for Ash Wednesday in many European countries. Personally, I think this method is truer to the spirit of the Gospel reading today: “wash your face, so you may not appear to be fasting.” A few ashes in my hair are hidden compared to a large cross on my face.

Most of the experiences I’ve had related to the ash cross have been closer to “street corner” moments. Once in college, I had forgotten about the ashes and gone to the dining hall with my friends, none of whom were Catholic. “Oh, um, you’ve got dirt on your face,” said one, trying to be a helpful friend. That time the ashes led to a good conversation about what Catholics believe. In the majority-Catholic environment of grad school, my Catholic friends and I had a joke on Ash Wednesday. If one of us had gone to the early Mass, the others would see the ash cross on that person’s forehead and say, with false melodrama, “I’m going later!!” – as if that person had judged us for not already getting our ashes (because we were judging ourselves a little for not having them yet). I had one choir director growing up who would plan “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” for today, an on-the-nose reminder that while it’s often easy to tell who is a practicing Christian by looking at them on Ash Wednesday, our loving actions should show our faith even more obviously.

All that is to say that if your parish sprinkles rather than crosses the ashes this year, it may be an invitation to think about the hidden ways we pray and the public ways we live out our faith. Much of what was considered private or personal has become public in the last year, like the space of our home that’s behind us in a video conference, or the other members of our household who come into the frame. Much more of what was once public has become more private in the last year: lunches during the workday, liturgies now livestreamed in the living room, conferences becoming webinars, gatherings of friends becoming one-on-one phone calls or walks outside, choir rehearsals becoming individual singalongs with practice tracks and accompaniment recordings. We have all become more acquainted with solitude, and perhaps with some of the ways we need to personally practice turning towards God and asking for mercy. This Ash Wednesday, as we begin again, we are invited to reflect on how God reveals Godself in solitude and in small, almost hidden ways. How would you like to start again this Lent? How would you like to practice turning towards God in your daily life and relationships?

“Turn to Me” by John Foley, S.J.

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