From a priest reader:
Dear Father Z.
The "mad dash" for ashes has begun here. A question I have, that you may know the answer to or at least have an opinion of, is, does it make sense to impose ashes on infants or toddlers (ie - those who do not yet have an awareness of sin)? Aren’t the ashes an exterior sign that implies an interior desire for repentance?
But, on the other hand, is there any merit to imposing ashes on the very young for the "teaching moment", or for the immersion into the Catholic heritage and culture that it brings?
I know, there are several questions there. Answer as many or few as you wish.
You raise good points, Father.
Since this is a sacramental and not a sacrament, I think we can have some leeway.
You are right that, from the point of view of the sacramental and what it represents, there is little point to imposing ashes on an infant.
On the other hand, our Catholic identity is rooted in more than what we grasp from the light of reason. Deep memories and emotions, implanted impressions, also play their role.
I have had several discussions with older converts who, entirely independently, make the observation that adult converts really aren’t quite "Catholic" until they have been a practicing for some 15-20 years. It may be that it takes that long for things to sink in, settle in at the root of your mind, at your starting points of which you may not be consciously aware as you view the world and make decisions.
Hmmm… that was pretty good. I am also reminded that some books are deeply Catholic, not because they deal with priests and stuff, but because of the world view in the book, which might remain unexpressed in an explicit way.
In that case, there is something to be said about imposing ashes on the very young, as you suggest.
Another practical point: It is worth doing it simply to avoid the ridiculous discussions you will have to have if you don’t. Inevitably some anxious mom will be upset that junior didn’t get the ashes, especially because they are so cute with that smudge, etc. Who cares if it "means something". No reason involved,… just emotion you can’t possibly address.
Though I am being a little facetious…. well… not too facetious really… there is another point to consider.
Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday seem to be big days, especially because people "get something". But not only that, they get to go forward to the rail (in traditional circumstances) and get something. I have spoken with a number of folks who are unable to receive Holy Communion for one reason or another. On a very deep level it is important for them to go forward to the rail, with everyone else, and receive them precisely what everyone else gets. Even in those places where a blessing is given at Communion time, they still are getting the same thing as everyone else.
In any event, your question was good and its raises interesting points about the ineffable consequences of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday.