Carolyn Woo

Carolyn Woo

As Ash Wednesday approaches, I am puzzled by a fairly well-established statistic: Ash Wednesday Mass tends to draw a large attendance, right up there with Masses at Christmas and Easter. I asked around and never got a satisfactory answer. Someone said it is Catholic guilt and the sense of obligation.

But Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. Some bloggers have said that this is clever marketing, as the attendees are getting something for nothing. Really? Ashes?

Ashes and the intonation, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” are reminders of our mortality and sinfulness and a visible marker of our remorse. These are intended to compel us to confront our reality with an intensity and urgency meant to change our hearts and then our lives.

For me, these serve the same purpose as my primal shriek. You see, whenever I experience a potentially life-threatening accident-about-to-happen when my husband is driving, all I can manage is a guttural shriek. It is my primal alarm for danger. Another analogy comes from living in Indiana where we got tornado warnings commanding our total and immediate attention to get to safe shelter.

Though the rites of Ash Wednesday are administered through quietly spoken words and simple gestures, often in a stately church and accompanied by beautiful hymns, they are nevertheless meant to jolt us out of our daily routines and gripping priorities that lure us away from God and into the spiritual dead zone.

It is an urgent call for our souls, as close to danger as a car crash or a deadly tornado. I think we want to do the right thing, but our choices and actions are littered with the good that we postpone doing, preoccupation with success, our pride that forgets and refuses grace, desire for things that turn them into idols, self-centeredness that places our needs over others’ needs, worries that steal the joy from the present, feelings that we hurt, grudges that we nurse, gossip that inevitably diminishes others, etc.

But Lent is not primarily about what we have lost, but what we stand to gain. The ashes are not random smudges on our foreheads but trace the sign of the cross: our hope and salvation. The alternative charge from the minister is to “repent and believe in the Gospel.”

The hymn, “Ashes (We Rise Again From Ashes),” calls us to rise from ashes at the beckoning of God, to start anew, to overcome our sinfulness not by our own power, but by God’s power. Lent revisits the promise that, when we fail to love and lose our way, God is there. We always have a way home. Ashes make it clear that now is the time for us to rekindle our desire for God.

We do so by making time to put ourselves in God’s presence (prayer), by acknowledging and serving him in the other (almsgiving) and by learning to let God and not things fill our void and define our appetites (fasting).

I suspect that Mass attendance spikes on Ash Wednesday because we know our sinfulness and, as hard as it is, we make an explicit nod to our human mortality. But transcending all, it is the people of faith expressing the desire to make good with God and do better.

For this reason, Lent is a joyful season. May we who enter through the threshold of Ash Wednesday make an effort to go further and deeper into our Lenten journey as an invitation and opportunity to turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

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Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.