Rev. Richard John Neuhaus long wondered about the phenomenon of innumerable Catholics, pious and not, practicing and not, who throng to churches at all hours of Ash Wednesday to receive ashes on their foreheads on the first day of Lent. He was unable to pinpoint a reason why the annual ashes exceed both the Lord’s birth and resurrection in popularity; in fact, ashes have become such the rage that even some Protestant churches have begun distributing them. Motives aside, the fact remains that on Ash Wednesday a formidable team of Catholics in trains, planes, and office corridors offer a powerful, if curious, witness to the supernatural without uttering a single word.
The public dimension of Ash Wednesday is inescapable, and essential. The mark of ashes that Catholics wear is the only sacramental that visually lasts for hours after leaving church. But this singular public showing of one’s Catholic faith is no triumphant declaration that extra ecclesiam nulla salus. It is instead an acknowledgement of our sinfulness, our mortality, our need for conversion and a Savior. The wearing of ashes can be likened to the prophet Jonah’s public warning to the Ninevites, enemies of Israel, to turn away from sin before it is too late, a reminder needed today as much as yesterday and the day before.
This public declaration of our own sinfulness — and with it, our implicit promise to fast and repent — may seem contrary to Jesus’ own warning, read as the Gospel on Ash Wednesday, to conceal our fasting, prayer, and almsgiving to all but our heavenly Father who is hidden. The Lord here is counseling us to avoid pride, the beguiling enemy of fasting and penance, not to avoid our fellow Christians, whose help we need all the more in the Lenten work of interior purification. For this reason, the Church’s penitential practices have always been public affairs. St. Paul instructed the Corinthians to expel grave sinners from the community; this public “excommunication” of manifest sinners continued in the early centuries of the Church.
By the third century, elaborate penitential ceremonies were established in different regions, and penitents had to perform very public acts of reparation — fasts, prayers, almsgiving, dressing in sackcloth, covering their heads with ashes — for months and even years before they were personally reinitiated into the community by the local bishop. (Those who today shy away from the confessional because a priest yelled at them 40 years ago should be grateful for how easily they got off.) These very public showings were not created as ritualized deterrents; they were signs to all of God’s mercy, and the sincerity that one needs to seek it. To those who thought these penances were the cruel requirements of a parsimonious God and Church, Tertullian tartly rejoined, “Is it better to be damned in secret than to be absolved in public?”
Mercifully for all, by the Middle Ages public penance took on new forms. On Ash Wednesday, all Christians — manifest sinners, kings, nobles, peasants — voluntarily submitted themselves to do penance and received ashes as a sign of their contrite hearts. One could now confess sins — one of the essential elements of Lenten repentance — through private confession and absolution, as is done today, rather than through the public rituals of the early Church. Yet even this practice has a public dimension: the individual is assigned a penance to make satisfaction for the damage his sins have caused to God and to the community. As the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has written, we are not saved as individuals; we are saved as the community of the Church, to which each individual “I” has been grafted by baptism.
The communal character of Ash Wednesday’s call for interior repentance by necessity extends beyond the walls of the Church into the public square. Like Jonah, we must travel through hostile territory to preach the gospel of repentance. On Ash Wednesday, the ashes silently preach on our behalf. Today, however, this call seems far less likely to find listeners as receptive as the King of Nineveh. The religion of secularism has recently anathematized wearing large crucifixes in France and displaying crucifixes in Italian schools. Perhaps Christian ashes will be the next symbol challenged, because it asks for an introspection that is too difficult for some to tolerate. Yet in a strange irony Ash Wednesday provides one shared belief about human nature from which dialogue can begin with those who believe the world is a product of blind chance: Man is dust, and to dust he shall return.
Jonah did his best to escape God’s vocation for him, but God devised a rather clever way to recall him to his task. We, too, may long to escape from the discomfort of fasting, the rigor of prayer, the abnegation of almsgiving, and the self-consciousness of wearing ashes in the public square; but Ash Wednesday recalls us to our task of interior renewal for the sake of the Lord, of ourselves, of the Church, and of the world. Conversion will always be necessary; so, too, are the ashes that are its exterior mark. So come one, come all, the fervent and the doubting, to receive the ashes of repentance.