That smudge.

Ash Wednesday is around the corner.  In the UK’s best Catholic weekly, the Catholic Herald, the lovely and persistent feature-writer Anna Arco has an article with comments about that ash-smudge.

Don’t rub off your ashes, urges bishop

By Anna Arco

Catholics should try not to rub their ashes off after Ash Wednesday Mass, an English bishop has said.

Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton, who heads the department of evangelisation and catechesis, urged Catholics across Britain to wear “the outward sign of our inward sorrow for our sins and for our commitment to Jesus as Our Lord and Saviour”.

He said: “The wearing of the ashes provides us with a wonderful opportunity to share with people how important our faith is to us and to point them to the cross of Christ. I invite you where possible to attend a morning or lunchtime Mass. [“Invite” is the right word, since Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation.  Still, I think Catholics do well to make the effort.  It is an important enough day in the Church’s liturgical calendar that it is the only other day with Good Friday when we must both fast and abstain.]

“Please try not to rub off your ashes as soon as you leave church, but take the sign of the cross to all those that you meet – in your school, office, factory, wherever you may be. This might just make people curious and wonder why you would do this. If you explain about Lent and Easter it might just make them think and may even awaken in them the questions that might lead to faith. Many people have a dim awareness of Lent and even ashes. It would be good to make this clear rather than dim. [Next question.  Can you explain Lent and Easter?]

“Don’t underestimate the power of this simple action and wear your ashes as not only a sign of the beginning of your Lenten journey, but also to witness to your greatest treasure in life. This small step could awaken faith in the hearts of many that you meet in a way that words could never do.”

Catholics receive ashes at Mass on Ash Wednesday where they are reminded of their own mortality when the priest says “From ashes to ashes”. [?] The ashes are made from the fronds of palm used on palm Sunday of the previous year.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Random Friar says:

    I’ve usually tended toward the side of rubbing off the ashes, simply because it seems a little against the Gospel for the day: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.” But I can see the evangelization angle as well.

    But, do we really want a bunch of people who may have quit caffeine (or any other habit-forming addiction) publicly proclaiming that they are Catholics? I always stay out of the way of those folks until the 2nd Week of Lent.

  2. Ellen says:

    I always go to Mass in the morning on Ash Wednesday and I alway leave the ashes on. I’ve found that the ashes remind some Catholics that’s it’s Ash Wednesday and they need to fast, and it might be nice to go to Mass in the evening.

  3. Allan S. says:

    I’m not so sure. Jesus went to a lot of trouble to repeatedly make points like not acting like Pharisees, not drawing attention to yourself when you fast, not making a show of your piousness, etc. I get that this is not what is being suggested, but I submit it is how one is usually perceived by others. Wearing the ashes is usually taken as a “Gee, look at me everyone, I’m so much holier than thou!”, even though that is almost never the intent of one who wears the ashes. This effect on others suggests that perhaps not keeping them on is more appropriate.

    A tough call. I can see both sides of this one.

  4. AndyKl says:

    From ashes to ashes
    ICEL’s rendering of “Remember man, thou art dust, and to dust you shall return.”


    Also, I’ll wear them proudly. Except, it’ll probably be a Novus Ordo, so … could they be in the form of a cross, as opposed to a smear. Pretty please?

  5. pelerin says:

    Good to read this as Bishop Conry is my Bishop! Doing penance in private or bearing witness in public – which does one do? This year I have the choice between a morning Mass or an evening Mass on Ash Wednesday and I have to admit that I am tempted to go to the evening Mass as it will be a Missa Cantata in the Extraordinary Form. However it will be dark when I come out so apart from the bus driver I probably will not be bearing witness to anyone. A difficult decision.

  6. samgr says:

    A sign of humility to many is to some beholders a sign of pride. Ya pays yer money (symbolically) and ya takes yer choice.

  7. irishgirl says:

    What the good Bishop said!
    I plan on going to Mass on Ash Wednesday and wear my ashes the rest of the day.
    My forehead gets oily, so they’ll probably be gone by evening, and my bangs are now so long that they won’t be seen!

  8. mrsmontoya says:

    Last year I intentionally went to Mass before work and carefully avoided removing the ashes for the day (it was a secular workplace in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place that is notoriously anti-faith). It made a public statement about my effort to keep my faith at the top of my priorities, despite any worldly consequences. And now, a year later, because of the long-term consequences of those choices, I will be just one more person at my (new place of) work with that smudge, sharing happy stories with my coworkers about the different services we attended, the relative beauties of the locations, the piety of our various ministers.

    Thank you, Lord, for all your goodness!

  9. Lirioroja says:

    I’ll echo Ellen’s experience. Without fail, every time I come back from my lunch break on Ash Wednesday (which I use to go to Mass and receive ashes), all the Catholics in the office see me and are reminded that they “have” to go to church and get ashes. Most don’t realize it’s not a holy day of obligation. They also ask me for the Mass schedule at the local churches (since I’m the token practicing Catholic so of course I know these things.)

    Here in NYC it’s not unusual to see people walking around with black crosses/smudges on their forehead on Ash Wednesday. In fact, it seems every other person has them. In fact here you can add Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday to Christmas and Easter as the day people come out of the woodwork for Mass and disappear the rest of the year.

  10. David Homoney says:

    For a day that requires fasting and abstinence it is surprising it isn’t a Holy Day of Obligation. Fr. Z, do you know why that is? Sounds like it should be. That said I will be wearing my ashes, though since I work from home, I’m not sure it will be a great tool for evangelicalism.

  11. Supertradmum says:

    I was asked one year at a secular college where I was teaching “Where are your ashes?” as everyone knew I was Catholic. Non-Catholics seemed disappointed that I was going to an evening Mass. One never knows the strength of witness.

  12. Gabrielle says:

    The fruits of the Holy Spirit eh…
    So, the Bishop who attended the WYD in Germany sporting a T-shirt with the slogan “special K”, whose name is (was?) a byword for dissent among CBCEW, is becoming more vociferous in his adherence to the Holy Father.
    A cynic might say that he is trying to “prove himself” in his position, or aggrandise himself. Others could remind us that we are all sinners reliant on the mercy of God.
    May God continue to strengthen this pastor in his proclamation of the truth.

  13. Sieber says:

    “Remember man, thou art dust…..”

    It’s been many years since I have heard those words. At St. Nemo’s we get the liturgical equivalent of, “Have a nice day.”

  14. AM says:

    I always wash my face right after Ash Wednesday Mass, because Jesus Christ has just said I should, explicitly, in the Gospel reading. (St.Matt. 6:17).

  15. Ellen says:

    I always hear ‘remember Man that you are dust’ And I make it a point to go to Mass at the Fathers of Mercy chapel where I know I won’t hear Ashes. (I really, really don’t like that hymn).

  16. BenedictXVIFan says:

    They say something like “Repent and live the Gospel”, which is acceptable to me.

  17. JARay says:

    I see that there are some who have commented on the words used when the ash is placed on one’s forehead.
    As a boy, those words were “Remember man that thou art dust and into dust thou shalt return”.
    Now it’s “Repent and be faithful to the gospel”.
    I prefer the older admonition. It reminds us of our mortality and what awaits us with absolute certainty. There are times when we need reminding of this.

  18. Catholictothecore says:

    I usually go for the daily 8:00am Mass and will wear my ashes for the rest of the day at work.

  19. Chatto says:

    Great to hear this from Bishop Conry (who isn’t my bishop, FYI). To the other readers in England & Wales: do you get the feeling that something’s been going on in the various cathedra since the Holy Father’s visit? This is the same Bishop Conry who gave that (in)famous interview to Andrew M. Brown at Fr. Z’s favourite Catholic weekly, the Catholic Herald, in which he said “you can’t talk to young people about salvation.” Likewise, Archbishop Smith, long a stalwart of what is sometimes called ‘the Magic Circle’ (a term I deplore – c’mon, folks, we’re talking about bishops!) has publicly promised the Church in E&W will oppose “in the strongest terms” any government plan to redefine marriage. I can only hope that Peter’s shadow fell on them, as it were, while the Pope was here, and that some internal healing is taking place! Fr. Z’s right – we need to pray for our bishops!

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