by Katie Rich
Ash Wednesday is consistently the most attended Mass of the year, beating both Christmas and Easter. Outside of the Triduum, it is also one of the most somber and penitential Masses of the year. So what is it that draws Catholics young and old, devoted and fallen away, to this particular celebration?
It should be acknowledged that people like receiving something extra from Mass. Palm Sunday is another exciting day, because each year you can renew your attempts to tune out the homily and instead finally master the art of palm-cross origami. Yet Ash Wednesday always draws a bigger crowd, with a much less tangible take away.
There is something seductive about Lent that draws even those who haven’t been to Mass in months back to a church. There is something hauntingly evocative about a priest running his sooty
thumb across your forehead and murmuring, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (or alternatively, “repent and believe in the Gospel”). There is something empowering
about a visible mark of faith, a literal sign across our foreheads that merits some stares and a general acknowledgement of our faith. It is the one day a year when lay, unhabited Catholics
can walk around and be identified by their faith before anything else, and we like it. But why is that?
Pope Benedict, in his general audience address on Ash Wednesday, 2006, stated that as Christian believers, the true program of Lent is to listen anew to the word of God. He continues: “Lent encourages us to let the word of God penetrate our life and thus to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, which road to take in life. And thus the season of Lent offers us an ascetic and liturgical route which, while helping us to open our eyes to our weaknesses, opens our hearts to the merciful love of Christ.”
As college students, no four questions are more pertinent to try and answer over our four years of schooling. Freshman year, we struggle with reconciling who we were in high school with who we are becoming as young, quasi-independent adults. We are more aware than ever before of where we came from, and on the flip side, where we want to go. Ultimately, we must determine which road we want to take in life, a question that will follow us as the road keeps forking along the way.
Consciously or not, we realize that Lent is a kind of new beginning. On Ash Wednesday, we are given the opportunity to commit anew to a penitential sacrifice – not eating chocolate, being kinder to our roommates, etc. The ash on our foreheads is a visible reminder that on some level, we believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church, and recognize Jesus as Lord and Savior. But sometimes that visible reminder isn’t as important to the average onlooker as it is when we come home and look in the mirror.
While pretending to enjoy and eggplant parm in Hillside on Ash Wednesday, I overheard a few girls sitting near me discussing their plans for Lent. None had decided what they were going to “give up.” One suggested pizza, but another commented that this would truly take away a large portion of her happiness, that she ordered pizza too much, it would be too hard, so she would have to pick something else.
I’m not criticizing these girls at all, but I do have a challenge for them, along with the thousands of other people who had similar thoughts and conversations on that day. Instead of focusing on the physical lack you plan to instate in your diet or routine, try instead to focus on what drew you to Mass on Ash Wednesday. Why did you want to go? It is not, unlike Sundays and other holy days, a holy day of obligation. There is nothing telling you that you must go to Mass, and yet it’s the most popular day of the year, and you went. Remember Pope Benedict’s words: Lent helps open our eyes to our weaknesses, and in turn provides a spiritual path to open our hearts to God. This Lent, remember that you are dust, but if you challenge yourself in your faith, even just the smallest bit, you might be surprised at what can rise from the ashes.