Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. In my experience, Mass attendance by the people of God is greater than at official holy days. Not getting into any morality issues and allowing for the fact that some may think it’s obligatory to begin Lent, I wonder what’s the dynamic driving Ash Wednesday’s popularity.  

Some observations: Maybe there’s something about those ashes … so many choosing to feel that irritating burnt grit on our foreheads and to hear those irritating, haunting words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return!” (Or at least, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” which can irritate and haunt and still be good news). 

Even though we often and strangely “numb” ourselves with so much “stimulation,” an inner wisdom, voice and grace breaks through. “You are but dust! Accept your mortality!”  

Spano, Philip.pdf

The popular Lenten, everyday word, REPENT, means change your mind, change the direction of our own emotional programs for happiness which often contradict God, love, relationship. So much of us can be destructive, or at least empty, unnecessarily. So let’s encounter our mortality with what really matters when ashes and words, meet heads.  

It is also my opinion that Ash Wednesday is a holy day for so many Catholics who grieve and feel alienated because they can’t approach the table of the Lord who ate and drank with sinners and tax collectors when his human/historical body was on this earth. Regardless, they can humbly approach the ashes and receive the Christ who goes wherever there is hunger for Christ.  

Traditional Lenten practices involve prayers, works of mercy and fasting/self-denial. Read the Ash Wednesday Gospel (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18). As spiritual and good as the readings are they can also be misdirected and thus reflect hypocrisy … “blowing a trumpet before you,” etc. Rather, increased prayer means we should go into our inner room (our very selves), lock the door and be who we really are before God, sins and all. That is whom God loves regardless of the prayer forms we are drawn to as well as mortals who will be ashes one day.  

Works of mercy and almsgiving reflect generosity but should also reflect humility – “there but for the grace of God go I.” So much of who we are, how we are … a mere accident of birth that we can make gods out of. Jesus says, “But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you” (Lk 11:41). 

Self-denial/fasting encourages humility as we come face to face with our mortality and acknowledge not only the reality of physical hunger but also so many emotional and spiritual hungers that we fill up with substances that fail to satisfy (often our sins). God is creator, we are not. We are creatures who must accept our creaturehood so as to not impede upon the creator. Thank you ashes.  

Lenten practices help us to encounter Jesus Christ who accepted his creaturehood (and gave away himself as love to the father’s love). Lenten practices can assist our contemplation on what changes in our consciousness need some serious adjustments (REPENT). Sins are often symptoms of disordered consciousness. Interesting that “consciousness” and “consciences,” which sound so similar, are so necessary for Lent and every day in our spiritual journey.  

Father Spano is pastor of Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Baton Rouge.