Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Notes on Ash Wednesday.

Today the Church celebrates Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and regarded by many as the most distinctively Catholic day of the liturgical year. Though Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation, more Catholics go to Mass today than attend on some bona fide holy days and many who pack the pews today are seldom seen there otherwise. The appeal that Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season have for Catholics of all stripes - from the ultra-devout to the minimally practicing - is easy to appreciate. The act of signing with ashes (a reminder not simply of one's sinfulness but of one's baptism as well) and the speaking of the powerful words "remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return" are among the most poignant and widely recognized features of Catholic practice. (As an aside, I should note that I was pressed into service today to help distribute ashes at Our Lady of La Salette Church across the street, and I was surprised to find the experience more deeply moving than any of the many times I've served as a eucharistic minister.) The Lenten practices of fasting, abstinence and penance help foster an attitude of introspection that can lead even the most casual believer to consider how he or she can better live in relationship with God and others. Ash Wednesday and Lent offer potent reminders of the cultural distinctiveness of Catholicism as well as the gravity of our baptismal commitment.

On a somewhat different note, "Ash Wednesday" is also the name of a famous and beautiful poem by T. S. Eliot, which I commend to your attention. AMDG.


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