On Wednesday, I wore ashes on my forehead in the Catholic Lenten tradition. I received countless looks of bewilderment on the Upper West Side that day, some of which resolved into expressions of relieved comprehension, but most of which seemed to be suppressing an urgent: “Um, m’am, you have a big black smudge on your forehead.”
I live in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, so this reception did not startle me. Nor was I surprised by the fact that I did not encounter a single other Catholic wearing ashes on that day (outside of our Church)–and I did find myself searching.
But what left me puzzled on this particular Ash Wednesday was the Gospel, which I have heard every year for my thirty-five years on this Earth, but which had never jumped out at me in quite the same way. The Ash Wednesday Gospel implores us to pray in secret: “do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.” The message is clear: do good in order to do good. Do not sound the trumpet before you.
Such an odd message for the single day of the Catholic year in which I bear an outward sign of my Catholicism. Most of the time, it is easy, in fact, to be discreet about my faith. I do not have to wear a yarmulke or a hijab to conform with the conventions of my religion. There are no dietary restrictions to observe and explain over Brunch with friends (“I can’t eat pork…”) Mass is early on Sundays and has never conflicted with any other activity in my life: I cannot recall a time where I have had to forgo a social event, for example, because I needed to go to Mass. (Who does anything at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday?) In short, to the casual observer, I could just as easily be a devout Christian as I could be a fervent atheist.
The exception is Ash Wednesday.
I found this tension for the first time in my life both fascinating and surprisingly uncomfortable. In years past, I have never minded the looks of bafflement on Ash Wednesday because inwardly (let me speak candidly, and shame on me) I have been patting myself on the back: “Good for you, Jen, you rearranged your day to get to Ash Wednesday Mass” and because I also assumed that most people understood what Ash Wednesday was and did not pay much attention to odd glances in my direction. For my first two decades on this earth, I lived a life densely populated by Catholics and, as a result, continuously overestimate the number of people I encounter that share my faith. This year, perhaps because we have moved into a neighborhood where it is commonplace to see boys wearing peyot and men wearing yarmulkes, things felt different. I felt more like an outsider than I usually do.
But there was something else. This year, I have grown increasingly turned off by the prevalence of virtue signaling in my life — usually on social media, but occasionally in real life as well, too. By this I mean: small ways that people toot their own horn and backhandedly compliment themselves for their goodness and virtuosity. I am just as guilty of this as the next Tom, Dick, or Harry. I’m sure I could be read the riot act based on this blog alone — “remember when you said…?! UGH!” But I am working to correct this distastefulness and highly conscious of its ubiquity online.
Of course, the wearing of ashes is not the same thing as virtue signaling. As a practicing Catholic, Ash Wednesday is a holy day of obligation. But it felt to me as though I was putting my faith on display in a way that made me more self-aware than in years past.
What to make of this, I wonder? How to untangle this unwieldy nest of mixed messages, wherein I am told to wear ashes and then reminded to pray in private? Where I observe others wearing the outward signs of their faiths and think nothing of it beyond “I admire their commitment” and yet worry that my own might be distastefully conspicuous?
+If you want more musings on religion/prayer, you might like my posts on praying the novena, the Bible phrase “focus on me, not on the storm,” and the place where I find it easiest to feel God.
+Note that in the picture at the head, the chic pea is wearing a Bottega pouch…JUST SAYING.
+Lent is now underway and Easter is in sight. A few additions to my earlier roundup of Easter goodies:
++Cute and inexpensive baskets for little ones. (Fold flat! Highly convenient for my fellow urbanites.)
++The perfect sandal for Easter/spring in general.
++Found the cutest spring decor at Target — will be using them first at mini’s Peter Rabbit themed birthday party and then repurposing for Easter! I got this gingham table throw, these melamine bunny plates, and these melamine gingham plates. How darling?! Wish I’d seen these $2 melamine cups before ordering. The CUTEST print for mini.
+This $119 Zara dress is A MUST.
+I feel like this gel face mask is having a MOMENT. I keep seeing everyone rave about it! Dying to try…
+On discernment and intellectual snobbery.
+Chic nesting baskets, on sale.
+Have you ever considered staycationing?
+Loft has some super cute rompers/jumpsuits for spring that are selling really quickly — this has an Ulla vibe to it, this plaid style is chic and beachy (love the bow in the back), and does this not remind you of our beloved SZ Blockprints caftans?! Two of these have already sold out in my size, but I’m ordering #1 now!
+These flats look like they are Aquazzura (under $100!)
+My spirit, in dress form. No really. I have this D&G bustier dress in sky blue I bought for my honeymoon that has that exact shape and the handful of times I’ve worn it, my sister has said it’s the most me thing she’s ever seen. Which is odd because I don’t see myself as a bustier type gal, but something about the fit and color and simplicity and vague 90s-ness of it all feels like home.
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24 thoughts on “Ashes.”
Lots of food for thought here! I am in the same camp as one of the Mollys above — I was raised Catholic, but cannot abide the twin issues of continued sexual abuse scandals and lack of formal acknowledgment of LGBTQ+ people. I’m taking cues from my parents here, who stopped attending Mass outright in 2002 when the Boston Globe story broke. It unveiled so much, including serious issues that occurred in my own childhood parish, that my parents could not abide it, and I have taken their lead without looking back. As my mom says (which I wholeheartedly agree with), there are many ways of living one’s life by one’s Catholic (or Christian) values without actually supporting the structures (financial and otherwise) that are used to cover up or support abuse.
I feel incredibly strongly about this, but at the same time, I do not at all mean to denigrate anyone else’s choice to attend Mass or financially support the Church — I firmly believe in “live and let live”. I just can’t do it myself, and can’t imagine ever going back to the way things were before the scandals were unveiled. 2002 was a watershed moment for me in that way. I suppose it helps that I’ve always (even in childhood) identified as more spiritual than religious, too! I find God in many things in life.
Hi MK – I respect your decision and the thought and consideration that went into it, and also appreciate your openmindedness to the views of others here. I love what you said, too: “I find God in many things in life.” Carrying that sentiment with me today.
Openmindedness and respect for others are the twin pillars of how I try to live my life. That means a lot … thank you! xx
Absolutely loved this post! Beautiful reflections on Ash Wednesday and faith generally.
Also, I bought that embroidered Zara dress and it is AMAZING. Super voluminous and just a total statement. Love.
Thank you Katie! And good to know about the Zara dress!!! I dream of taking it on a tropical vacation right about NOW.
Hi there! First time commenter here, but avid reader.
Also a fellow Christian, although Protestant and not Catholic. I love the practice of Ash Wednesday and your thoughts on the strange looks you received. I take the message shared to mean that we can’t just have empty outward expressions of faith. If you’re just getting ashes on Ash Wednesday, but then have no other part of your life that shows the fruit of a Christian life, then we are hypocrites. However, if you have outward signs like ashes or praying in public or some other observable characteristic of your faith AND you have a private faith life, then you are walking the walk and talking the talk. I say wear your ashes with confidence and pray wherever you please. Just make sure there’s substance to back it up.
Just my two cents 🙂
Thank you for the always thought provoking writing.
Hi Jessie – Love this interpretation and that makes a lot of sense to me. The outward should reflect the inward. xx
Hi Jen! As a former Episcopalian and current Anglican, both denominations also observe Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes, which is a sign of mortality and penitence (and has been around since the ninth century!). The words at the imposition, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” help me, like your mum, to remember the life and death of Jesus and prepare for Lent. Virtue signaling is indeed despicable, and most offenders are, in practice, really hypocrites. Wearing an outward sign of your Christian faith in any form, be it ashes or a cross necklace, is a very personal reminder that you are a child of God, which is the real blessing.
Thank you, Susan, for these well-put thoughts! xx
Interesting thoughts! I am Episcopalian since birth (with a brief time as a catholic when my parents decided we should all switch) we practice Ash Wednesday as well. I deeply appreciated that our church (which also is where my children go to pre school) had ashes to go! My 4.5 year old praying and receiving ashes (along with a lesson) was truly beautiful. We even wore them to swim lessons etc the rest of the day! I live in the south so Catholics/Episcopalians are not the most common but we don’t ever feel particularly unusual! Must be so interesting in NYC!
So nice – that actually reminds me that back in Chicago, priests used to give ashes at the L stop close to us, so commuters could receive them “on the go” as well. xx
Hi Jen! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Ash Wednesday. It is an interesting juxtaposition between the outward display of ashes (though one of humility) and Jesus’ words. The best explanation I’ve found is from Catholic Answers:
Basically, Jesus often uses hyperbole and is primarily speaking to our intentions. Getting ashes is a sign of humility (we’re sinners), and that humility and desire for repentance should be our intention. I found it helpful to understand the Gospel with that in mind!
Also it is interesting that so many Catholics attend Mass (or at least receive ashes) on Ash Wednesday. I also recently heard (via Fr. Mike Schmitz’s podcast!) that Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation because those are reserved for days of feasting (though it’s a very important beginning to Lent, nonetheless!); Ash Wednesday and Good Friday aren’t Holy Days of Obligation for this reason.
Anyway, I’ve been loving all of your Micro recommendations as we just had our first boy after two girls! I need to fill out his wardrobe!
Hi Shannon!! Yes! I had no idea Ash Wednesday was not a Holy Day of Obligation, but a few readers have messaged me to let me know. Interesting that it’s the feasts that qualify — makes sense.
Thank you for chiming in with your thoughts here, and for the link to that article. A propos!!
PS – CONGRATS on the birth of your son!!! So exciting! How old is he?! Thinking of you!
Thank you! He’s 6 weeks old, so we’re still in the foggy newborn days. I’ve loved going back and reading your layette and Christening recommendations! I always love reading along.
Thank you so much for reading! Thinking of you — those early days are so tender and magical and also exhausting!! xx
Long ago my Mom stopped going to Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday Mass. She is one of the most devout and spiritual people I know and yet she felt like these Masses were superfluous and I tend to agree with her.
In recent years, my reticence to attend is twofold:
1) I feel strange wearing ashes/publicly declaring to the world that I am Catholic when I am torn apart over the sexual abuse scandals in the Church in recent years. Furthermore, as a woman, I always feel like a second-class citizen in the Church. Finally, In 2020, I also find it almost impossible to square the refusal to fully accept LGBTQ+ individuals into the Church (and by fully accept, yes I mean marriage).
2) Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday masses often feel like places to “see and be seen”. It always amazes how full the church is on those two days compared to regular Sundays, or even Easter!
As always, thanks for offering much food for thought on this chilly Friday.
Interesting food for thought back!! Your note prompted a few minutes of conversation with my mom today on the phone, too! She presented a different observation that I’d not considered: that Ash Wednesday is important in helping her set her intentions for Lent and really focus herself during this period. Sort of a spiritual kick-off.
Thanks for chiming in.
Ooooh. I honestly had not thought of that. I do think that it’s helpful to think of it more as the start of Lent than as a day in and of itself (which of course I know but do I really KNOW?? Ha.)
Thanks to you and your mom for giving me even more to ponder. xoxo
Right – she really reframed that for me, too! Lots to think about, and so many interesting comments below, too. xx
As a fellow Catholic and mother I loved reading your passage today. I find Ash Wednesday mass to be so poignant and emotional. Also, because I go to mass before work, its one of the few times I attend mass alone (typically bring at least my 4 year old and 8 month old, sometimes the 2 year old is there) and so I savor the quietness. I too really resonated with the gospel this year for the same reasons as you wrote about, so thank you again for sharing.
Hi Molly! First, wow and applause: three children under the age of five with you at church?! Ahh! Wow! I know what you mean – once you are without a child in the Church, the experience feels completely different and often moving. Thanks for writing in and reading along!! xx
I once heard that Ash Wednesday is one of the most highly attended services in the Catholic Church worldwide. I wonder if it’s because it’s the one holiday we Catholics know for a fact when others have been to church that day and when they have not… it’s the ultimate mark of church attendance.
Interesting – had not heard that stat before!!