From a priest:
Reverend and Dear Father,
Ash Wednesday is soon to be upon us, and I am faced with the situation I am often faced with: whether to impose ashes on cute, angel-faced infants.
It never fails that, as the faithful come up for ashes, they bring children.
I don’t see the purpose of imposing ashes on babies, who are unaware of not only sin, but what the ashes represent (as well as what the formula spoken means).
I know, if I don’t impose ashes on them, I’ll get bad looks from both sides of the ecclesiological spectrum.
Is there a reason I can cling to why babies should receive ashes?
I hope a few priests will jump in with their experience and thoughts on this matter.
Father, you are right that, looking at it with the cold eyes of reason, there is little point to imposing ashes on an infant. Sure there is the cuteness factor. More importantly, you will avoid the ridiculous discussions you will have to endure if you don’t put ashes on the precious bundle of joy. Inevitably someone will be upset that little Stupor Mundi didn’t get the ashes, especially because we live in an age when everyone has to “get theirs”, and in particular if it’s free. No reason will be involved in these discussions, by the way. You’ll have to deal with emotions, usually “mom’s”, and you cannot win on that field. So, Father, unless you have lots of time and patience, just put the ashes on the kids.
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 some really early memories. You just never know what ineffable memory might be planted! Seriously.
It seems to me that if it is obvious that mommy or daddy want darling precious to have ashes, then go with that. Put the ashes on the kid and move on (I am assuming that you are moving along the altar rail where people are kneeling like the good Catholics they ought to be).
If you are not sure if mommy or daddy expects Her Cuteness to get smeared with the gritty burnt vegetable remains which could get her wittle eyes, then ask about it. You could ask something like, “Do you want some of this harsh and gritty burnt vegetable ash near her sensitive eyes or not?”
On second thought, how about, “And your child?”
I would advise, that if the ashes are put on a bit thick on the child’s forehead that you watch carefully that you not get any in the child’s eyes. After that you can, if the image isn’t a bit ironic, wash your hands of the matter…. which come to think of it you’ll be doing before Mass continues. I digress. Just don’t you get ashes in the child’s eyes. The parent’s eyes, on the other hand….
“But Father! But Father!”, I can hear some people shouting. “Clearly you think ashes shouldn’t be put on babies. How old is old enough for the ashes? Do we have to wait for 1st Holy Communion?”
First, I didn’t say babies should not be given ashes. Read again what I said above about deep memories. I wasn’t kidding about that. I am not being merely pragmatic. However, I would add that if little Stupor Mundi is old enough to say “sorry” to Jesus before beddy-bye, she is also old enough to start learning about penance and self-denial and what the ashes stand for: We are dust and unto dust we shall return.
Hmmm… now that I think of it, if a parent has to look at the smudge on baby’s head and think about death, that could be a good thing.
Reverend and Dear Father, since this is a sacramental, and not a sacrament, I think we can have some leeway. And before anyone brings it up by shouting “But Father!”, this is not quite like the “blessing for babies at Communion time” issue: that moment is for Communion, not blessings. Dealing with the fallout (get that “ash” image? heh?) might be the same, they are not the same problem.
Finally, if you are going to make the decision not to put ashes on babies, may I recommend making a good confession before Ash Wednesday?
If you survive, let us know how it went.