Ashes & Mass

Receiving ashes in a rush and skipping Mass evinces liturgical illiteracy and workism

I have noticed an Ash Wednesday phenomenon in recent years in Washington. It even preceded COVID. Various clergymen set up tables outside Metro subway stations, offering ashes-on-demand. Last Wednesday morning, for example, there was something of an ecumenical duel outside one station. On the north side of the entrance were two Lutheran ministers in albs and stoles imposing ashes, while on the south side what looked like an Episcopalian had positioned himself. As I write elsewhere [here], the Episcopalian parish I pass on the way to my bus stop was offering “ashes to go” from 7 to 9 in the “front loop.” Though I left too early to observe the proceedings, I surmise it was a pull up, get ashes, pull out sort of thing. I satirically observed they didn’t throw in a coffee, which might have been a sign of “welcome” and “hospitality.” I assume that was because it was Lent; with memories of the discipline of fasting somewhere in the corners of one’s mind, nobody thought of the obligatory church pairing of coffee and donuts.

As I observed in that essay, this practice represents the worst of two worlds: liturgical illiteracy and workism.

In Catholic churches, even though it is not a holy day of obligation, most people go to Ash Wednesday Mass. And most pastors connect ashes with Mass. Again, even though it is not a holy day of obligation, most parishes schedule Ash Wednesday Masses as if it is (or at least more liberally than their usual weekday schedules). Yes, the ritual allows for imposition of ashes outside Mass but — and correct me if I’m wrong — that practice is the minority in most parishes on Ash Wednesday. And, even where ashes are distributed outside of Mass, the Church prescribes that the act should occur within a liturgical setting, i.e., at least with a Scripture reading and prayer.

Now sometimes something seems so normal that we do not even bother to examine the assumptions behind it. But we should. That ashes are imposed during Mass and that — the non-feast-of-precept character of Ash Wednesday notwithstanding — people make time to go to Mass say two things: spiritual practices connect with the liturgy and the spiritual should interrupt the rhythms to which we might otherwise be accustomed.

Ashes are a sacramental. Sacramentals, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us (nos. 1667-68), bear a resemblance to the sacraments and dispose their recipients towards “receiving the chief effect of the sacraments”; “sanctify” a variety of “circumstances in Christian life”; and always are accompanied by prayer. In short, they stand in some relation to the liturgy — preferably in relationship to the Eucharist — as the practice of Catholics on Ash Wednesday indicates.

Sacramentals are not magic. The Church regularly reminds people, for example, that the brown scapular is not a “get out of hell free” talisman. It is a sacramental whose wearing indicates a faith in God’s mercy and Our Lady’s promises of deliverance, but it also presupposes a certain lifestyle on the part of the wearer. A scapular is, after all, something of a religious habit and those who don religious habits are expected also to put on a “robe of righteousness” (Is 61:10), to gird the “breastplate of righteousness” (Eph 6:14), and to clothe themselves “with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Col 3:12). The failure to do so is tragically apparent in the fallout from clergy sex scandals where, despite the Psalmist’s (132:9) prayer to “let your priests be clothed with righteousness,” some are not.

The same with ashes. Decades ago, Brylcreem was a popular men’s hair grooming product with a memorable jingle. Ashes are not a spiritual Brylcreem, where “a little dab will do ya.” [Throwback video here.] Ashes are a sign of a commitment to spiritual change, the accomplishment of which comes not from the smudge but from the sacraments to which they direct us in order to be converted. That is what lies behind the visceral Catholic sense that receiving ashes should be connected to Mass.

And that’s one reason I object to Metro ashes. Perhaps there are people whose schedules are so extensive and intensive, whose presences are so indispensable that — despite sincere efforts to break away — they would have to forego ashes on Ash Wednesday but for “ashes to go.” But I really don’t believe that. As Charles De Gaulle (to whom this quote is most often wrongly attributed) observed, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” That observation is particularly relevant when we remember that the ashes are a sign of our mortality.

So, there is great wisdom in the Catholic instinct for connecting Ash Wednesday ashes with Mass, in contrast to free-standing ecclesiastical ash drive (and walk) throughs. Our spiritual acts, our aspirations towards holiness, our solicitations of Divine help always have some liturgical nexus.

That insight is particularly relevant in the wake of the alleged theological “development” claimed for Fiducia supplicans. Against the Catholic instinct that spiritual acts always have some link to the liturgy, Fiducia purports to distinguish “liturgical” and “non-liturgical blessings.” Somehow, though, these self-standing “non-liturgical blessings” strike me as analogous to our subway station ash distributors: offering a lite-beer substitute to assuage a sense of spiritual need that is not yet demanding enough to make one plunge into the deep on the Church’s terms i.e., into the liturgy which calls us to holiness through a changed life.

That leads to my second objection: workism.

Yes, liturgy takes time. The Mass I attended was 40 minutes long. That’s a lot more time than ashes on the run. But, as I noted, the number of truly indispensable workers incapable of interrupting their Ash Wednesday schedules is most likely a lot fewer than those who think they are, or who use that thought as an excuse to take a shortcut. It’s not that the Church is even forcing someone to “wedge” Mass into his schedule. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. So, you strictly don’t have to be there. The fact that people at some level want to be there means they recognize the justice of God’s claim on their lives. It’s why St. Thomas treats “religion” under the cardinal virtue of “justice.” But when we turn ashes into the next “grab-and-go” commodity, aren’t we in fact short-circuiting the awareness that we should take time for God? That prayer has primacy over work? That the start of Lent is the moment par excellence — the moment of grace, the kairos — to shift and reorder those priorities towards the things of God?

In the recently published collection of his final works, What Is Christianity? The Last Writings (Ignatius, 2023), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI observes, “In the consciousness of people nowadays, the things of God and, consequently, the things of the liturgy, do not appear urgent at all. Every possible thing has its urgency. God’s cause seems never to be urgent.” Well, if God’s cause is not compelling enough to rearrange schedules at the beginning of Lent, when will it be urgent? Urgent enough not to be satisfied that “a little dab will do ya?”

I know some people will think I’m a “half-empty” sort of guy. Shouldn’t we be satisfied that they’re still stopping for ashes — which they don’t have to do — and meeting their “pastoral need” in the midst of modern life? No. I think those “half-full” guys are putting band-aids on priorities, assumptions, orders, and mindsets that in fact are ultimately harmful to those people. As Benedict observes, “In setting God aside [or at least making Him jockey for time], man subjects himself to constraints that make him the slave of material forces and that are thus opposed to his dignity.”

Let’s not settle for the “half-full.” Let’s go for “good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over” (Lk 6:38).


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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