From Our Pastor: Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust
As we look ahead to Ash Wednesday, this year will look a little different that we are used to here in the USA. The Vatican has instructed us in the USA and a few other places in the world that place the ashes on the foreheads of people, not to do so this year because of COVID. They have asked us instead to join how most of the world receives their ashes on Ash Wednesday, sprinkled on the crown of the head, without touching.
This is a request made to look to our safety with COVID, with the added precaution of not saying the formula for each person. I know many are very concerned about this. Some are worried it's going to get everywhere or some other concern. Some are upset because they like the other way of placing the ashes on the forehead. Well, first we are not going to dump ashes on your heads in large quantities, so do not fear about the ashes getting everywhere, in fact the ashes most likely will be less messy than when we receive them on the foreheads and the ash can fall over our face and onto the front of our clothes. Second, we must offer it up this year for the health and well-being of others, if we are one who is upset that we like it the other way.
There is a purpose and a meaning behind ashes on the crown of our heads and a beautiful theological understanding. When we read the gospel for Ash Wednesday, Jesus says "Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father." Jesus also states "When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting...but when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face...and your Father who see what is hidden will repay you." It's almost comical to then turn around and receive the ashes on our foreheads as we are used to, and again this is not the way most of the world receives their ashes.
Ash Wednesday arguably is the most attended Mass of the year, and it's not a Holy Day of Obligation, but if you don't go, people will know, and if you go you "get something" on this day. Sadly, this means, most people do not understand that every time they attend Mass, they receive something far greater, the EUCHARIST, Jesus Himself. Sadly, people attending so that people can see that they went, misses the entire understanding of what Jesus says in the gospel every Ash Wednesday.
The beautiful of the reasons for receiving the ashes on the crown of our heads is twofold. First, we are heeding the gospel, and not flaunting our "attendance" the rest of the day, which yes many would say is a moment of evangelization, but even though your ashes aren't seen on your forehead, evangelize anyway. In fact, use this opportunity to tell people why they don't see ashes on people's foreheads this year, and why it is different. Take the opportunity to tell people about it. Because the second reason, and most important reason, we place them on the crown of our heads is to call to mind our baptism. As we hear those words, "Repent, and believe in the Gospel,' or 'Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." we are reminded to repent and reminded of our death, but that is in light of the good news of our baptism. In this time of COVID, we are well aware of our mortality, but as Catholics because of our baptism this is not something we fear at all. In fact, as St. Francis of Assisi did, we are called to embrace "Sister death" with confidence because of how we have lived our lives, and followed the Lord, and stayed in the Church, and allowed the sacraments to transform us and prepare us to see the Lord.
The ashes are sprinkled on the crown of our heads, where the water is poured in our baptism, and where we are anointed with Chrism as priest, prophet, and king. This sprinkling calls on the crown of our heads, humbles us, in reminding us of our dignity as sons and daughters, and the good news of the love our Father, who is hidden, has for His beloved Children. As on Ash Wednesday, we remember the good news that love conquered death, so we have nothing to fear because of the gift of our life in Him because of our baptism.
Now go and tell everyone why this Ash Wednesday looks different...because of the good news that we have been baptized and made for Him in the dignity of the Father's sons and daughters.
Rev. Steven Arisman