A few more thoughts struck me after I went to Ash Wednesday Mass last night. Since St. Mary’s is remodeling, weekday masses are held in the Lyceum, normally. But the Lyceum is way too small to handle the expected Ash Wednesday crowd, so it was in the gym instead. The crowd was enormous — it was hard to compare to a normal Mass, since it was in a totally different building, but the bleachers and the vast majority of the chairs set up on the gym floor were filled.
The Popularity of Ash Wednesday
That actually relates to the first thing I thought about. I saw a homily which claims that Ash Wednesday is usually one of the top three or four most-attended Masses of the year, “outside of Christmas, Easter and perhaps Palm Sunday.” My gut is that’s accurate, or close to it. It was nice to see VP Biden with what a British newscaster thought was a bruise. Lots of people you don’t necessarily see on Sundays are there at Ash Wednesday. Which is all the more bizarre, because Ash Wednesday isn’t a Holy Day of Obligation. You have to fast, but the ashes are totally optional. I’ve been trying to figure out why Ash Wednesday is so popular. Here are a few possibilities:
- People can tell if you’ve gone. I joked yesterday that if we marked all the Catholics who showed up on Sundays, we’d see a lot more of them. My dad said that growing up, in Catholic areas it was like a marker showing you were a “good Catholic” (I think I can save pointing out the ridiculous irony of a mark of penance being used as a source of pride). I’m inclined to think that #1 isn’t as big of a motive as I’d previously thought, because the crowded Mass I went to was at 7:30 PM, so if the people attending were overly concerned what their officemates or neighbors thought about their forehead and their soul, you’d think they would have made one of the early-morning Masses. Everyone there spent the day with a bare forehead.
- It’s noticeable. This is sort of the opposite of #1. I think that people with ash crosses on their foreheads are a walking advertisement for the Faith. Lots of people who haven’t been to Mass in a long time probably have a pestering voice inside urging them to go. Yesterday, they also had lots of external reminders that they haven’t been in a while.
- It speaks to a real human need. This is the theory I’m sort of partial to. Having at least one day (or two, if you count New Year’s) where you resolve to do better — and in this case, throw yourself upon the mercy of God to do better — is something which millions of people seem to realize they need. It explains why Ash Wednesday is popular outside of Catholicism while other big feasts, like Pentecost, aren’t. I think that the existence of secular New Year’s resolutions suggests that this need is visible even to those who’ve given up on the idea of a saving God.
Those are all just theories I’ve sort of pondered in the last day. Maybe there’s an element of truth to all three, maybe there’s some other reason I just don’t get.
The Significance of the Palms
The second thing I’d thought about was the symbolism of the ashes themselves. If you’re not familiar, the ashes for Ash Wednesday come from the Palms used for Palm Sunday. The religious significance here is pretty fascinating. Palm Sunday commemorates the Jewish crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem. At the time, they thought of Him as a political leader. By week’s end, many of these same individuals were cheering for His Crucifixion, and calling for the release of Barabbas instead of Him. It’s the ultimate cautionary tale about trying to mold Christ into our expectations, rather than mold ourselves off of Christ’s. It was the first and most important rebuke of the Marxist strands of “Liberation Theology” and any attempts to conjure up Jesus the Politician; or Jesus my Homeboy; or Jesus the Banker who wants to give me wealth and health instead of making me take up my Cross and follow Him. And more generally, it’s a stinging reminder of how short-lived our “good intentions” are. We try too often to accept Jesus on our terms, rather than His.
For the “Procession of Palms” for Palm Sunday, we read Lk 19:28-40, which is the account of the people laying the palms down for Jesus on His journey into Jerusalem. Verse 40 is a strange place to stop, because the next four verses are startling:
As he drew near, he saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If this day you only knew what makes for peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you; they will encircle you and hem you in on all sides. They will smash you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”
So here’s Jesus being welcomed into the Jeru-Salem (literally, City of Peace), because people think He’s going to bring peace through the sword. Let’s point out one thing briefly: even though what makes for peace is hidden from the people’s eyes, it’s because of the hardness of their own hearts. Jesus is literally weeping over this: He isn’t delighting that He’s made some reprobates which He doesn’t love and who never had a hope for salvation because they weren’t elect. He’s held out His hand, and it’s been spit upon so many times that He’s pulling it back. But more importantly for the subject at hand, the welcome to Jerusalem He’s getting isn’t making Him happy.
How fitting then, that we should take those palms and destroy them, burning them to ashes, and wear those ashes as a sign of repentance. It reminds me of nothing so much as Bp. Fulton Sheen’s beautiful Christmas commentary, which alludes to the Nativity prophesy in Isaiah 1:3:
“In the filthiest place in the world, a stable, Purity was born. He, Who was later to be slaughtered by men acting as beasts was born among beasts. He Who would call Himself the living Bread descended from Heaven was laid in a manger, literally a place to eat. The Jews had worshiped the golden calf, and the Greeks the ass. The ox and the ass now were present to make their reparation, bowing down before their God.”
Likewise, Ash Wednesday is a time when the palms from Palm Sunday can come and make their reparation, taking up their Cross, just as the ash-bearers do.