I remember different Ash Wednesdays for different reasons. The first time I ever received ashes was in second-grade CCD class. The teacher herded us into the field behind the school where Father waited, vested in alb and purple stole. He burned the palms right there in a Weber grill while we watched.
Today this same priest is for me a dark avatar of penance and conversion. A couple of years ago, he pleaded guilty to looting the Sunday collection to finance a gambling addiction. Lent is now his everyday life: he works off the debt, dollar by dollar, as a hospital orderly.
In middle-school CCD, Ash Wednesdays–or at least the classes closest to them–were about getting little cardboard buckets to collect for Catholic Relief Services. I spent forty days begging change from my parents and obsessively scanning the school floors with a laser eye during passing periods. Given my school’s many staircases, its vast lunchroom, and its maze-like subterranean tunnel system covered in murals, seeking stray coins was quite the adventure.
I admit to making charitable giving one competitive Lenten event among others, like the couple of years I gave up snacks entirely, proud of the splitting hunger headaches I dedicated to Christ. But I did grasp that Lent should make you not only ascetic but generous.
I remember an Ash Wednesday from my Catholic high school, I think freshman year. With our ashes, we received a wooden nickel with a red cross on it, called “Cross in My Pocket.” It had a prayer on the back and we were supposed to carry it during Lent.
I soon noticed abandoned wooden nickels all around the building. Here I was, a former “public” kid in this mythical wonderland of Catholic education, slowly absorbing that many classmates did not share my devotion, that not a few were in fact calling B.S. on it. Learning to sit with this, without judging, later became a major theme in my faith journey.
My most memorable college Ash Wednesday was the one when I watched Mel Gibson’s lurid epic, “The Passion of the Christ.” I got my forehead smudged, inhaled a vegetarian quesadilla, and joined my housemates in a darkened cinema to take in the blood-spatter. Knowing that in real life the Romans most likely gave Jesus thirty-nine lashes, I sat dumbfounded as I counted seventy-eight. The rest of the film proceeded with similar enthusiasm. Hours later I stood shivering on an El platform, feeling grossed out and violated.
Looking back, I realize that was when I finally rejected a particular Catholic aesthetic, one perversely fascinated with mortification. There is a difference between embracing the natural risks and pain of self-giving, on the one hand, and the pornography of suffering on the other. Officially, the church agrees. In practice, we still get confused.
A few years later, I distributed ashes for the first time. We had many young kids in the congregation that night, and we are not the sort of parish that does the “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” thing. So I bent down to these munchkins, who all seemed to have uniformly flaxen hair and angelic eyes and speckled-puff faces, and ground soot into their foreheads while informing them they were dust and unto dust they would return.
The words were harsh. I winced apologetically. Yet Christianity is not a religion of caramel and marshmallows, and it is probably better to learn that early.
This year also really stands out. It was the first time I’ve begun Lent knowing there would be a new pope at the end. I knew it because only two days prior, and for the first time since the Middle Ages, the pope cashed in his chips before he died.
I don’t doubt Pope Benedict XVI’s official reason for retirement, his age and infirmity. But for two centuries, popes have routinely lived into their eighties. I suspect a deeper reason is the wall of “everything and all at once” his age and infirmity ran up against: hemorrhaging church attendance; a still-exploding sexual abuse crisis; Vatican infighting and backstabbing, gone septic and exposed by VatiLeaks; inquiries into alleged Vatican financial misconduct; restive women and LGBTQs who simply refuse to stay silent; and more.
Meanwhile, “everything and all at once” suggests it’s not just the accretion of individual problems. They are all somehow linked. And they are signalling that the world is about to turn.
So I will remember Ash Wednesday 2013 in a unique way, not for how it spoke to me personally, but for what it revealed to the whole church: that we now officially live, however uncertainly, at both the end and the beginning.
*Dies cinerum, Lat., “day of ashes.”