Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ashes... Get Your Ashes...

A MOST blessed Ash Wednesday to you!

Have you observed the phenomenally high attendance at Ash Wednesday Mass? It blows me away every single year. This morning, the pews were packed at the 8am Mass, in a parish that echoes with empty pews on Sundays. This afternoon at the noon Mass (when I was getting Bella from school), the same church parking lot was a lawless traffic jam, incapable of accommodating all the mass-goers.

It's not only the sheer number of attendees that catches my eye; it's the demographic. There is no other Mass all year with such a high turnout of young single adults, coming to Mass alone (not with their parents like perhaps at Christmas), wearing everything from business suits to grungy workout clothes to scrubs.

They come to get their ashes.

Some come ONLY to get their ashes. In the survival-of-the-fittest parking lot today during noon Mass, there was a large exodus of people halfway through Mass, leaving with ashes on their foreheads but before the Liturgy of the Eucharist had begun.

It's beautiful, the way they come in droves on Ash Wednesday to be reminded that "you are dust, and to dust you shall return", or to "Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel."

It's also beautiful, this desire by SO MANY MORE than usual to be visibly identifiable as a Catholic for one day, wearing the ashes on the forehead.

How do you explain this? What is so compelling about the message of Ash Wednesday? Especially when we live in a culture that is obsessed with ignoring the reality of sin and the inevitability of death.


Jo Shabo said...

yes- I was going to post about this as well. I don't get it, in fact sometimes it bothers me (just a little) that we might not always get a seat at church on Ash Wednesday because a large amount of people that we haven't seen the whole year at church are now in attendance! -- What is even funnier is, it's not a holy day of obligation, you know?!?
Anyway, I know I should just be positive and think it is a good thing that everyone shows up... but somehow it always irks me a little...

Mary Alice said...

I think it might also be that a lot of these people go to other masses, so we do not see them regularly, at our NYC parish, most of the young adults go to mass at 7pm on Sunday, so we did not see them for most of the year.

This year, our priest said "turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel" when he put on the ashes, and that will be my mantra for Lent.

JMB said...

A couple of reasons, I suppose. Some people will get ashes at any church that is close to where they work, especially the noon or lunch time hour. When I worked in midtown all the Catholics on the trading floor would discuss where to get ashes and we would go together, from the Managing Director down to the receptionist during lunch.

The other answer is the Holy Spirit. As part of our baptismal grace we are "owned by Christ". So it is only fitting that we will eventually die and be His. Ash Wednesday is a reminder to us all of our fate.

Kat said...

Our parish has decided to distribute ashes at the VERY END of Mass, so that all those people who come just for the ashes need to stay through the very end - very clever :) And it greatly benefited my children and me, who were a full 15 minutes late to Mass yesterday and probably would have missed our ashes otherwise!

I was struck yesterday that Christopher (our Kindergarten kid) really wanted to make sure that he received his ashes. I pulled him out of school so that he could attend Mass with us, and he was upset that he wasn't going to get to show his friends his ashes because it was too late to return to school for the day. So, JM, you're onto something - what is it that makes us want to be so visibly Catholic, especially on this one day?

Kat said...

Our parish has decided to distribute ashes at the VERY END of Mass, so that all those people who come just for the ashes need to stay through the very end - very clever :) And it greatly benefited my children and me, who were a full 15 minutes late to Mass yesterday and probably would have missed our ashes otherwise!

I was struck yesterday that Christopher (our Kindergarten kid) really wanted to make sure that he received his ashes. I pulled him out of school so that he could attend Mass with us, and he was upset that he wasn't going to get to show his friends his ashes because it was too late to return to school for the day. So, JM, you're onto something - what is it that makes us want to be so visibly Catholic, especially on this one day?

Right Said Red said...

Unfortunately, I don't think many of them are going to other Masses. Mr. Red went to Mass in the city, and he was amazed at how many people came late, received their ashes, and then immediately left. I saw the same thing at our parish.

I think for many, getting ashes allows them to say, "look at me, I'm still Catholic." It is a very easy outward sign of their faith. Unfortunately, I think it just stops there. I think this can happen to all of us when we do "showy" things to proclaim our faith, and in many ways it was what the gospel preached against yesterday. Lent is about returning our hearts to Jesus, not just getting ashes, or giving up meat on Fridays. Sure it is important to let others know we are Catholic, but it has to be deeper than that. It can be easy to get caught up in all the penances and lose focus.

The phenomenon you described JM actually made me think about how often things in my own faith life are akin to going through the motions and just getting ashes on my head. I think Lent can become this way for me unless I really focus on Jesus. Lent isn't about just fasting or adopting extra "rules" for my life. It is about deepening a relationship, changing my heart, and growing closer to God. I have to ask myself, "what things in my life are keeping me from a better relationship with Christ?" and then work on those. While I must respect the church and refrain from meat on Friday's, at present, eating meat is the least of my concerns. I have so many other things I need to change to grow closer to God.

Molly said...

I'm always a little confused (maybe someday a homily will enlighten me) about why we receive ashes on the day that the readings are about making sure that we do things for our faith without making a show of it. It just always seems like a conflict to me to be hearing about fasting and giving alms in secret at the same time as we're being marked to go out in public as church-goers. Does anyone have thoughts on this?

Elizabeth M said...

Our parish does it the same as Kat's -- the ashes are not imposed until the END of Mass -- even after the final blessing.

Having lapsed in practice at one point in my life, I TRY to remind myself to pray for those there who do not come to Mass regularly or practice our faith in other ways. I TRY, I don't always succeed. But maybe the grace of the sacrament or the welcome or the homily will help them consider coming back!

There is a sense of frustration from those of us who do participate in parish life and attend Mass every Sunday and holy day when the pews are so crowded with "visitors."
But it's not just us -- I've heard our DRE (a sister) call them "PACE-ers" because they come for Palms, Ashes, Christmas and Easter!
Sometimes, yes, it's a matter of people going to Mass near where they work (not in their regular Parish).

But online many other faiths, there are a lot of people who hold onto the "cultural" practice of the faith without doing more (hence coming for ashes, even though it's not a holy day of obligation, but not attending Sunday Mass). I've heard people who think that only *really* religious people actually go to Mass every week, or that it's "old fashioned," or that it's just too hard to make the time...

Our pastor reminds us once in a while that coming to Mass every week is the *least* you do to be a Catholic, not the most.

But I'll just try to continue to pray, and as JMB said, maybe the Holy Spirit will continue to call them back!

kathy said...

Okay, maybe it's just me, but I never associated ashes with being Catholic. My Methodist church distributed ashes. So did the Presbyterian church I went to in college. But it was a 30 minute walk, so rather than going there, I went to Mass. I usually assume that that's true of at least some of my fellow ash-receivers, especially since Catholic churches are more likely to be in city centers, near offices and such.

And I'm with Molly. It always does seem to be a little bit funny to be receiving ashes when hearing about concealing our fasts and our good deeds...

Erin said...

I think more now than ever people want to belong somewhere. Even if they don't attend church often, when they begin to see other people walking around after getting their ashes there's a part of them that just wants to be a part of something that used to be a part of, or something that they would like to be a part of again. It's almost like it calls to them and brings them back. In some ways I think that is what tradition is for. God doesn't need our traditions to be reminded of us, we need them to be reminded of him. Unfortunately, not everyone maintains a high level of devotion, which is hard to see when you're a person who goes every week, who listens and tries and wants to be there. But when I see people like this is my own faith (I'm not Catholic, I just have a serious love for the Catholic faith) I try to remember the Prodigal Son and The Parable of the Laborers (I think it's called...Matt. 20) and remember that God see on their hearts, and I should just welcome people for as long as they'd like to be there, pray for them when they're not. Doesn't stop me from feeling frustrated, though. ;)

Mr. Mary Alice said...

Just because people come in, receive ashes and then leave doesn't suggest either way whether they go to church on Sundays.

My own sense is that it is hard to believe that someone who doesn't go to church routinely on Sundays would decide to go in the middle of their lunch break on Ash Wednesday. Similarly, I find it hard to believe that someone who doesn't go on Sundays would go on Ash Wednesday merely to get ashes to feel some sense of belonging or to advertise piety.

Some churches simply give out ashes all day (outside of a liturgy) precisely so that people can get them and leave. I don't think we should criticize people for showing up, getting ashes and leaving. Who knows what's going on in their lives or work days to require such haste?

JMB said...

I actually called a friend of mine, who is Catholic but doesn't practice regularly, to take my two youngest to church yesterday because I had to take the older ones to the orthodontist at the same time. Rather than getting all preachy or smug about the A & P Catholics or cultural Catholics, I think the better approach is to live your life in sync with your Catholic faith and live it like it is really important. When I asked my friend to take my kids to church I let her know that this was important to me - it was real. She very graciously accepted and brought her children along with mine. She was one of those "non-regs" taking up space in the pews with my children, yesterday.

I once had a neighbor who made it real to me. He was a friend - a happy, outgoing, beer drinking, come on over have a barbeque, type of friend. He was also a young father and a daily communicant. His happiness was infectious. I remember asking him once - why is it you are so happy all the time? He said "it's the Eucharist baby". He ended up getting killed on 9/11. It was a graced filled friendship that brought me back to the Church.

Faithful Catholics are only going to win converts by living a life that is appealling to others. By complaining about the pews being filled with "outsiders" and non-parishoners we are simply falling into Satan's trap.
All those baptized non-practicing Catholics belong to Christ too. We should be happy to see them there!

Right Said Red said...

Mr. Mary Alice,

I respectfully disagree. Barring an emergency, it seems rather disrespectful for pews full of people to leave after receiving ashes (as was the case in our parish) in the middle of Mass. I find it hard to believe that pressing work matters are really pressing enough to interrupt a very sacred time. For better or for worse, it seems that most think it "cool" to get ashes. I guess it is so cool that people go and don't feel badly about leaving before the Eucharistic liturgy.

Oh, and I will add that when I went to Princeton, I can distinctly remember that a large portion of my "Catholic" friends who never attended Mass on Sundays went to Mass on Ash Wed. They seemed to go because it reminded them of their youth, and made them feel close to their family and culture.

Right Said Red said...

Oh, and I want to make it clear that I have no problem with those that do not regularly attend Mass coming on Ash Wed. and filling the pews--praise God for that. What I find offensive is the choice to run in an out, just for the Ashes. Mass is a sacred time, and I don't think a busy work schedule is a good excuse to interrupt the sacred.

In general, like JMB, I think Ash Wed. is a great time to bring fallen away Catholics back to the Church.

Mr. Mary Alice said...


I think you're being too hard on people. Every Ash Wednesday, I'm actually amazed at how many folks show up -- even if just for a little bit. Why question their motives? Should we question motives of people on their way up to communion, too? ("Psst, are you on this communion line because it will make people less likely to believe that you're actually stealing from your boss?")

Using Princeton undergraduates as a sample for the general population is dangerous, but let's assume that a "large portion" of the people who come to church on Ash Wednesday but not on Sundays are coming to get ashes solely to be "cool". Why do we care?

Right Said Red said...

Mr. Mary Alice,

Since I'm still online, I'll continue the debate. I care because it is highly disruptive and disrespectful. It also sends a message to everyone, including my children that it is ok to just leave Mass because you have something better to do. If you get ashes outside of the Mass because of your schedule--that's fine. But walking out in the middle of MASS is just plain disrepectful. In general, disrupting a service of any kind is rude, and it seems like it should only be done for a serious reason. And let me reiterate that it is disruptive when a large portion of the congregation just walks out.

Now we could go on and on about how Susie works for a mean partner who will fire her if she doesn't return to work immediately because of a really pressing project. Susie needs her job to support her mother who is dying of cancer and about how I shouldn't judge her. But let's be real--most people don't have a good excuse like this. I'm not judging individuals here, but the general group dynamic of leaving in the middle of Mass. If one or two people walked out because of some pressing matter I would give them the benefit of the doubt. But 1/4 of the church?

And I will add, that I also know of quite a few people in my area that do not regularly go to Mass on Sundays but go to Ash Wed. Mass. So it isn't just from my Princeton Days that I have had this experience. Like I said, I think this is a good thing (as these individuals also go to church on Christmas and Easter), but I take offense when massive numbers of people run out on Jesus during a sacred liturgy.

Mr. Mary Alice said...

I wasn't asking why we care that people leave. (I don't love it but tolerate it on Ash Wednesday as an alternative to people deciding not to risk it with their mean partner.)

I was asking why we care that people only get ashes because they want to be "cool".

Bethany said...

I hate to say it, and I've been described as a pessimist at heart, but I have to agree with Red.

I have a friend. A friend who, in college, would drag me to 9pm mass every Sunday along with other friends. I was the only one who wasn't Catholic. A long story short, we all had a negative experience with a particular person within the Church, all of my friends including her fell away from the Church, while my husband and I dove deeper into the faith.

This friend doesn't attend Mass, except on Ash Wednesday, though her FB status as of yesterday evening was decreeing how much she was enjoying her roast beef sandwich because she is "sticking with her guns and eating meat during Lent". She describes herself as a "Bad Catholic" when in reality she has all but completely renounced the Catholic faith. She disagree with nearly every doctrine and dogma of the Catholic Church, doesn't attend Mass, and has said there is no need for organized religion. And yet she still describes herself as a bad Catholic.

I think that many of those who come to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, as well as those who only attend Christmas/Easter Masses, fall into this category. And I think Erin is right, to some degree. It is because they want, they NEED, to belong to something, to have that sense of community. There are very few communities in this world that are as recognizable and identifiable as the Catholic community. Unfortunately (here's my pessimism) I don't necessarily believe it is because they feel the longing call of God and Christ urging them back to the Church. I don't really think there's anything sinister about it, but I do feel that for many of them it has become a strange way to belong to a community without actually giving up the highly touted individual autonomy that secular society worships.

Catholics may often get unfairly judged by other denominations but there are more Catholics in America than the next 9 largest Christian denominations combined. To be able to say or at least point to your forehead and say "I'm Catholic" means that you have defined yourself as a part of a group, without ever having to meet the challenges that "being Catholic" expects of you.

Right Said Red said...

Mr. MaryAlice,

Good to clarify. I don't care that much about people only wanting to get ashes because it is cool. So we agree ;-) I wish they wanted more, but at least they are there, and I always pray that maybe, just maybe something will sink in and they will take their faith more seriously.

But the leaving you can tell, that drives me nuts!

kathy said...

Yikes! I'm glad I decided to stick it out! I can't receive the Eucharist and I wasn't really looking forward to sitting in the crowded church for an additional 15 minutes while everyone else processed up to the front again.

But I'm with you Red on really not liking people leaving early, so I decided that it was good to stick with those principles (noting that it's a lot easier to stick around when there's someone with me who benefits). I also really don't like it when people leave right after Communion or try to sneak out before the cross and the celebrants, but I suppose that's a different issue...

Monica said...

I heard something new this year, namely that in Italy (and perhaps other places in Europe?) ashes are sprinkled on the crown of one's head (in the hair) Evidently, the cross on the forehead is an American thing. I wonder how changing the practice might affect Ash Wednesday Mass attendance, and correspondingly what our current practice says about American Catholicism. Perhaps this would also be more in line with not "showing off" one's good deeds.

On the other hand, I think that since ashes are a sign of penance, not to be worn to proclaim piety but because of a sense of sinfulness, that they do not go against the spirit of the Ash Wednesday readings. That does, of course, require us to be in the right state of heart...not always easy!

Anyway, thanks as always for a great topic!

texas mommy said...

I think it just makes me sad to see people leaving after ashes...such a poignant reminder or our mortality so closely followed by Holy Eucharist...the source of life from which so many graces flow! How can we not be longing to receive the Eucharist afterwards? Perhaps this is a failure of our catechesis...something to ponder.

Mary Alice said...

It's funny, perhaps because I went to a school where it was NOT cool to be Catholic, but I never felt like having ashes on my forehead was even a bit cool. Rather, for me, it was this weird time when I had to have the mark of my church on my forehead all day. It was a penance, and in some ways a test. I had to go about my day unashamed to be Catholic in the street.

This year, I was actually rather humbled by it, thinking that I was walking around with the mark of Christ on my forehead, wondering whether I deserved it (answer: only though His grace), and trying to live up to it (only through His grace).