Anne Notations

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Hey lady, you got somethin on your forehead

The Amish excepted, Christians have no special dress code that visually sets them apart, so 364 days a year they – we – are indistinguishable on the street from atheists, Reform Jews, or secular-minded folks of any denomination.

Then comes Ash Wednesday, and Catholics in particular confront the opportunity to stick out like a square dancer at a hip-hop convention.

"Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return," the priest reminds us on this day each year. Then he makes the sign of the cross on our foreheads with black ashes created by burning the dried leaves left from the previous Lent's Palm Sunday. The ritual is reflective and penitential; it begins the somber season of Lent leading up to the holiest of holy days, Easter. If you attend Mass in the morning or on your lunch hour, you will be outed as a Catholic everywhere you go by the big smudge on your forehead.

Michael and I went to the 7 pm Mass at St. Rita's tonight and got our ashes, then headed to Stop & Shop for groceries. I tend to forget there is something unusual about my face after a while on Ash Wednesday, but occasionally I glimpse a stock boy or cashier gazing just a bit too intently at me ... and then I remember. In this way, for one day out of the year we Catholics make our belief, our faith, and our humility before God known to all.

In my junior year of high school, our chemistry teacher, a bald, middle-aged man of Italian descent, appeared in class on Ash Wednesday with the telltale black smudge. We Protestant girls (for emphatically low-church Protestant I was back then) giggled behind our hands. It was impossible not to stare at that smoldering exclamation point every time we looked up at Mr. S's shiny forehead. Tee hee.

Later, at home, I couldn't get the image out of my mind. I thought of how Mr. S didn't mention the big dirty mark on his head, but carried on teaching the periodic table of elements as usual, seemingly unembarrassed by his temporary tattoo. How could he stand being seen in public like that? Why was he OK with looking silly, standing out?

Religious people of many faiths learn from childhood why it is not only OK, but useful, to state who they are and what they believe through their attire and customs – every single day. Yes, the ashes on our foreheads today might make some folks uncomfortable, or cause them to roll their eyes, or inspire a fit of the giggles. I think, though, on Ash Wednesday Catholics are asked to decide whether we're OK with our faith, and if so, to let others see that we are, as well.


  • I'll never forget the time when I was 7 and had to stay from school on Ash Wednesday because I was sick. My parents friend, Father Gillen, came over that evening for a drink. When I told him, sadly, that I didn't get my ashes, he reached over, picked up the ashtray, and marked my forehead with cigarette ashes. Bless his heart, I'm a Viceroy Catholic!

    By Blogger bozoette, at Thu Feb 07, 02:59:00 PM EST  

  • I liked this post because I related to it because of the human and universal way it was written.

    By Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann, at Thu Feb 07, 04:39:00 PM EST  

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