A Lenten Meditation on an Unconventional Ash Wednesday

Sobering_Surprise_on_Fifth_Avenue_3 A Lenten Meditation on an Unconventional Ash Wednesday

All across the nation, people can be seen crowding the churches (and supermarkets) to receive this sooty badge of honor.

As I went to the local supermarket this Ash Wednesday, I was surprised by a table outside on the sidewalk with two men in clerical collars. The sign said it all: “Ashes to Go.” They were administering ashes to shoppers.

I had already received my ashes from the priest at church, but I politely asked those manning the table if these particular ashes were Catholic. They said no that the Catholic ashes were available in the morning; theirs were Lutheran.

I snapped a picture since no one would believe me if I told them what I saw on my way into the supermarket that winter afternoon.

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Indeed, I could hardly believe it myself. This is the kind of thing that is not supposed to happen in the public square in America. I thought to myself: “Ashes to Go” at a twenty-first century supermarket? What an unexpected meditation to begin my Lent.

A Lenten Meditation

The classical meditation of Ash Wednesday calls upon us to reflect on our mortality and sinfulness as we enter the penitential period of Lent. The ancient practice dates back to the eighth century. When the priest puts the ashes in the form of the cross upon our foreheads, he reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

However, meditation need not deal exclusively with the intricacies of spiritual life. Broadly speaking, anything can serve as a point of meditation as long as it facilitates a pious communication of the soul with God and helps us know, love, and serve God better. Sometimes a casual event at a supermarket can trigger a meditation.

My non-classical meditation on “Ashes to Go” certainly did get me thinking of a broader picture. I could not help but reflect that this incident was one of those only-in-America paradoxes that can be so fascinating to those who want to observe life. Things like this break some old preconceptions about our secular society that is really not so secular. I saw in the fact that so many receive ashes as a sign of God calling the nation to him. It awakened hope in me amidst a nation in crisis.

Quintessentially American

ashes-to-go A Lenten Meditation on an Unconventional Ash Wednesday

“Ashes to Go” at a twenty-first century supermarket? What an unexpected meditation to begin my Lent.

You have to admit there is something quintessentially American about the idea of “Ashes to Go.” It is part of our admirably practical side that sees problems and works out ways to get something done, and quickly. In this particular case, the problem was ashes inside a church and people outside it. The solution was to bring the ashes to a place where everyone goes—the supermarket. First problem solved.

A second problem was how to communicate instantly the fact that the ashes are available at such an unconventional place. The solution was to frame them inside a familiar template of the pickup window or quick service platform—“to go.” One quick glance at the sign made it immediately clear to the shopper in a hurry what was going on.

And yet there is also something superficial in the concept, likewise American. While highly efficient and practical, “Ashes to Go” does somehow participate in the frenetic intemperance of a fast, materialistic and mechanical culture that tend to reduce everything—even the sacred—to a “to go” platform.

It has overtones of pop theology that I obviously do not agree with. However, what really struck me about the incident was the avidity of Americans to receive and wear these ashes, even in the public square.

A Counter-Cultural Message

While the means to administer the ashes used there was arguably very American, the message of the ashes themselves was shockingly counter-cultural. What makes ashes on Ash Wednesday so incredibly powerful is the fact that it is appealing, public, and highly symbolic. The ashes touch something very profound in the American soul that refreshingly defies the culture. Liberal media stay carefully away from criticizing it.

It is well known that lines stretch around the block near New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral as Catholics and non-Catholics alike wait to receive ashes on this special day. All across the nation, people can be seen crowding the churches (and supermarkets) to receive this sooty badge of honor. It is amazing that more Americans flock to church on Ash Wednesday than on Christmas, Easter, or any other day.

Even politicians on both sides of the aisle don ash crosses in the hallowed halls of Congress and statehouses. On this one day, at least, no one dares attack this very personal sign of the faith.

A Public Witness

While the ash cross is a very personal sign, it is undeniably public. And that is the extreme beauty of it.

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It cannot be ignored since it occupies the forehead, the most prominent part of the face. At a time when atheists are taking down crosses in the public square, they must watch helplessly as millions wear them proudly on their foreheads everywhere.

As a public witness, the cross commands respect and benefits not only the wearer but those who cannot help but see it. The dark, somber cross provokes others to reflect on God, religion and repentance.

The Anti-Hollywood Statement

However, the intense symbolism of this tradition is its most striking aspect. This symbol provokes a spectacular clash with our liberal culture that puts self-interest above everything. Nothing could be more contrary to the hypersexualized Hollywood message that life exists to be enjoyed to its fullest. The millions of small ash crosses are a rebuke to the secular establishment who would exile God from all aspects of life, and invite him back.

By wearing the cross on the forehead, we put on the symbol of suffering and redemption. We are reminded of the crosses that we are called to carry in our lives. We reflect upon how we have sinned and offended the good God. It is the symbol of our victory over the modern world that oppresses us.

By wearing ashes upon our foreheads, we don the symbol of our mortality—that dust to which we must return. We are invited to meditate upon what the Catholic Church calls the “Four Last Things”—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Scriptures says that if we ponder these last things, we will not be lost eternally. We are called to penance in contrast to Hollywood’s self-gratification.

The symbolism of the ash cross broaches forbidden subjects banished from our culture that you are not supposed to think about on the way to the supermarket.

Sign of Hope

But that is the way God often works. I close my unconventional meditation with the consideration that the fact there is still a strong vein inside American society turned toward things, religious and spiritual, is a sign of hope. There is an attraction to things sublime that is spurned by our culture. This yearning for something more is aided by a grace of God that is calling us to him. And this grace is powerful.

I believe there are many in our postmodern wasteland who clash with the culture and are searching for God. I pray that every day of this Lent might be an Ash Wednesday in which each of us might serve as a beacon to direct these who are searching for him.

This Lent I will clash with the culture. Wherever I am, I will remember my “ashes to go.

As seen on crisismagazine.com

  • Charlie

    I agree with you for the most part. However, getting them in the church to begin with is a problem. The church so full of rules is not meeting the heart felt longing in most people. So – take it outside the church and offer it on the street. I had to ask myself, if it meant nothing why dod they bother to stop? It also may get them to the next step to go further and ask the question, what is there about the ashes.

    • dbarto667


      • Thomas L. Stafford

        That is not the Judeo – Christian God. There are many who say that they do not represent the God of the Muslims either. Any doctrine can be misused by adherents and false claimants.

    • Dave Wygonowski

      The “rules” have been there for centuries, many established by God and Jesus Christ.

      The lavender mafia and the protestant Catholic clergy have been whittling away at and turning the people away from these rules by conveying the message that you don’t have to follow rules. You can just make up your own rules as you please.

    • Thomas L. Stafford

      The “rules” are the modern manifestation of the commandments. John in his gospel admits that he was only able to record and convey a small part of the acts of Jesus. In prayer and meditation the Church has expanded on what is known of Jesus’ ministry. The rest of the bible is also considered as the word of God.

    • Lou Soileau

      Charlie, as a cradle Catholic, I chafe under the burden of so many rules, too. While Dave has a good point, my consolation comes directly from Jesus, “I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you.” John 13:34. Start there. The rest (of the rules) fall neatly into place.

  • Chris Lilly

    Ashes to go? The spirit of Christian American Ingenuity is alive and well. The Lord works in mysterious ways!

  • Ginnyfree

    Awesome! I love it every year when the ashes are on foreheads everywhere. In this case, no one will know if they are “catholic ashes” or “lutheran ashes” once that little table is left behind. I can still remember the thrill I got as a convert to Catholicism the very first time I got to sport real ashes on my forehead for the very first time. I wore them proudly all over town and yes, I admit it, I did much more shopping that day then usual so I could show off my ash laden forehead. I wasn’t so much concerned about those ashes as the subtle turning of hearts God could accomplish for all the eyes who met my brow that day. I prayed the Holy Spirit would move the ones I met that day who were in most need of God’s tender and loving mercy. I’ve been a Catholic for a few years now and have met more than one person who has either converted or reverted who actually WAS influenced to repentance by the ashes they encountered on this day. They still are a very silent witness to the truths of our faith. So yes, even if they are “lutheran ashes to go,” where them wherever the Spirit may lead. He can and does use them to turn hearts from sin even the heart of the person sporting them. Yeah! Go Team! God bless. Ginnyfree.

    • Jennifer DeFillippo

      After receiving our *Catholic* ashes this past Ash Wed, my daughter & I went to
      a favorite restaurant & there were many Catholics in there, proudly
      displaying their ashes LOL…a lot of waitresses in there are also
      members of our parish; they were also wearing ashes ~ many were
      reluctant to wash them off before the end of the day.

      I have never heard of “Lutheran ashes”…but I’m sure He will sort it all out in the end.

  • Ginnyfree

    PS. You seriously need to reblog this article and pass along this story so others might catch on next year.