The Thing About Ashes

By Kate Henley Averett

Catholics have a thing about their ashes.

My Ash Wednesday memories from growing up are so many and so similar that they are disconnected from time and mashed together in my head, a chorus of voices asking “When are you getting your ashes?” or “Did you get your ashes yet?” I can picture the scene at the various Churches I’ve attended, and I find it fascinating the hordes of people that show up at Church on Ash Wednesday, people that may not regularly make it to Sunday Mass yet for some reason feel compelled to clear their calendar on a busy, cold weeknight to get their ashes.

All this is anecdotal, of course, but I maintain: Catholics have a thing about their ashes.

I find it a little hard to make sense of. Why do we find them so important? The ashes aren’t like communion; we don’t believe that they have some sort of innate power, they don’t “do” anything to us, and we certainly aren’t obligated to get them. And what’s with this language of “getting?” It sounds as if they are something to be crossed off a to-do list: pick up dry cleaning, get groceries, get ashes, get the kids up at school.

During my year as a middle school youth minister, my seventh and eighth grade Religious Ed classes met on alternating Wednesday nights, and Ash Wednesday happened to fall on an eighth grade night – the most exhausting night on my calendar. I had finally finished cleaning up after all sixty of my rambunctious, loud, fantastic, and fantastically exhausting eighth graders and putting six sets of class supplies away and was dragging my weary body and pounding head out to my car at around 9pm when I noticed a minivan parked next to mine, and a man, shoulders slumping forward slightly, walking toward it from the direction of the rectory.

“Excuse me,” he called out as he spotted me, “can I ask you kind of a strange question?”

“Sure,” I replied as I tossed my stuff into my car (because really, how else do you respond to that question?).

“I got off of work late and missed the last Mass and nobody is answering the door at the rectory,” he said, and then added, with urgency and maybe even worry in his voice, “I never got a chance to get my ashes.”

He paused for a moment, and then: “Would you mind sharing yours with me?”

It may have been one of the most awkward interactions ever, but I shared my ashes with the man, first rubbing my thumb on my slightly greasy forehead to remove some of my ashes and them tracing a cross on his forehead, in the cold, dark, and otherwise empty parking lot of the Church. He thanked me and got in his van, and I got in my car, and we went our separate ways.

When I replay the parking lot ash-sharing moment in my mind, I can feel it in my body – the cold air, my headache, the feel of first my face and then his on my thumb. It was a moment of communion, in which I was connected in a physical way to this other person. It had a sacramental quality to it, in the visible-sign-of-an-invisible-reality kind of way – I was suddenly made aware by this strange exchange of my interconnectedness with this man, of the way in which my body and his body were not isolated from each other but were caught up together in the body of Christ.

This moment has stuck with me, I’m sure, because of the sheer strangeness of it. But it makes me wonder if there is something about the strangeness of the ritual of receiving ashes that makes it so compelling to Catholics. We are used to ritual, yes, to the physicality of worship, and to the experience of filing forward to receive. But on this day, our bodies are startled out of their routine as they process forward and receive not the Body and Blood of Christ but a cross of ashes traced on the forehead. It may not be so strange as to cause us to continue to reflect on each moment years later, but just different enough that it causes us to momentarily pay attention, to awaken from the fog of routine and notice our bodies and how it feels to have a physical, sensory experience of our faith.

Maybe it makes sense, then, why we prioritize our ashes. We Catholics are physical people, but perhaps the sheer repetition of sensory ritual desensitizes us to the physical experience of our faith. Maybe we need moments like Ash Wednesday to remind us to pay attention to our bodies. Maybe, in the end, it makes perfect sense why Catholics have a thing about their ashes.

Kate Henley Averett completed her MDiv at Harvard Divinity School in 2008. Her MDiv thesis dealt, among other things, with embodiment in Catholic theology and ministry.


3 Responses

  1. Kate,
    Your comments resonnate with me today. There was a rebellious part of me on this Ash Wednesday- that did not want to do the usual annual “ritual”.
    At my work setting a group of seniors received their ashes from the local church. One of them asked me why I hadn’t gone to get mine. I then went over to her and asked if I could do something unusual. I connected my forehead to hers, where her ashes were placed and then thanked her for sharing her ashes with me. I told her that was very meaningful to me -to receive my ashes from a familiar person in our everyday community.
    In years past, I worked for a local parish and placed ashes on many foreheads, but there was something about today, that I will not forget–that of each of us sharing our everyday faith with one another in very simple, unassuming ways.
    So begins my lenten journey. Blessings to you! Annie

  2. Kate, ashes were not a part of my experience growing up and really not until I came to Peace UMC. I had experienced the services, but never the ashes. I think I like it as a tangible reminder that Lent has come and there is something for me to learn. I also like it when giving the ashes if the pastor calls me by name. It makes it more real somehow. That didn’t happen this year, but those times when it does it almost startles me at how powerful that is. Blessings to you on your Lenten journey and thanks for sharing. Sue

  3. Kate,
    A funny thing happened yesterday. A professor from one of my classes has just arrived here from India. A woman who had received her ashes (very early, I might add – I saw her first at 8am and she had already been) was in the class and as soon as she walked in the Indian professor exclaimed, “Ooh! What happened? Are you okay?” It took E a minute to know what the prof was talking about, bu then she said, “Oh, it’s Ash Wednesday.” This clearly made only a very small dent in the prof’s understanding, so E added, “It’s the first day of Lent.” This resonated, and the prof said, “Oh right, I know, so you are eating vegetarian today, right?” E said yes and explained a little further but what struck me was that this Hindu woman had used the language of her own religion so quickly to explain Ash Wednesday to herself. She wasn’t wrong, but I’d never heard not eating meat for Lent referred to as “vegetarian.” Anyway, it also reminded me as I sat there ash-less, as I have for many years, of the town we grew up in, where ashes were more common than not. I was glad E still followed the tradition, if only because it was an oddly comfortable reminder of childhood.

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