Ash Wednesday is one of the liveliest days in the life of an American Catholic parish. Before the Internet and voicemail, parish telephones would start ringing a few days before Ash Wednesday and often ring right through Ash Wednesday itself. These days—maybe because of technology—it seems that parish telephones ring a little less around Ash Wednesday. However, it is still likely that someone seeking ashes will frantically call a parish around 10:00 pm on Ash Wednesday night to see if ashes are still being distributed!
When a priest is reached before or on Ash Wednesday, conversations have sometimes gone like this:
Caller: When are you giving out ashes?
Priest: We had a Mass already this morning and we will have another Mass this evening at 5:00 pm.
Caller: I don’t want Mass. Just the ashes!
It is possible that the pagan lurking in us all really emerges from the shadows on Ash Wednesday. The Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist? No, just give me some of that “magic dust!”
As a seminarian, I cannot recall ever having an instruction concerning the actual meaning of the ashes that are distributed on Ash Wednesday. As with much in the life of the Church, it was likely assumed that we already “knew” what the ashes meant. Or, we had heard enough Ash Wednesday homilies to have absorbed the theology concerning the distribution of ashes.
Preaching about ashes is similar to preaching about Sacred Scripture. Both are mysteries, meaning that said preaching topics are inexhaustible. Just as with Sacred Scripture, there can always be a new and interesting insight concerning the distribution of ashes.
Before my first Ash Wednesday as a priest, my pastor counseled me to be cautious when I was pronouncing the alliterative prayer of blessing over the ashes: “God bless these ashes.” He said that many a priest had suffered a lazy tongue during the blessing and had pronounced the “ss” sound rather than the “sh” sound, much to the bemusement of the previously somber congregants. In truth, despite being forewarned, I came close a few times to slipping up myself over the years! Call it an occupational hazard.
What a priest says about ashes on Ash Wednesday is probably very closely linked to his own theology of salvation. For the first 15 years of my priesthood, I liked to speak of the ashes within the context of our own mortality, and hence our judgment before the Lord.
At Ash Wednesday services tomorrow, priests, deacons and other ministers of the ashes are given an option regarding the exhortation or admonition they pronounce as they apply the ashes:
Repent and believe in the Gospel.
Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Ash Wednesday, 2015, will mark the first time in my priesthood that I have chosen the “Repent” exhortation over the “Remember” admonition.
Maybe my personal theology is evolving like fine wine—the older I get the better!
The main reason I am changing my preferred Ash Wednesday exhortation/admonition is that “Repent and believe in the Gospel” is a direct quote from Sacred Scripture.
A large majority of New Testament scholars hold that Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written, somewhere around 60 A.D. Personally, I agree with them; I believe that Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written down, copied and promulgated.
If Mark’s Gospel is in fact the first Gospel to be written and distributed throughout the Christian world, then the first words of Jesus Christ (a direct quote) in the first Gospel written are, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
“Repent and believe in the Gospel” are among the first words in Sacred Scripture directly attributable to Jesus Christ. That is good enough for me.
Reminding Ash Wednesday congregants of their mortality is helpful, but it may be better to use the words of Jesus Christ himself.
The meaning of the ashes? This is the beginning of Lent. This is the time to change your life and turn back to God. Pray for the gift of faith.
Repent and believe in the Gospel.