Dust and Ashes?

AshesMed2P1210554Today let us pause for a pastoral moment.

I want to ask a question about our proclamation about the Gospel.  But before I ask it, I want to underline that I think this is a real question.  (If I believed all the answers were obvious, I wouldn’t be maintaining this website – or my career as a seminary professor!)  I propose the following as a question to think about, not as a facile answer that everyone obviously ought to follow.

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Supposedly there was a study several years back that asked American Catholics what their favorite sacrament was.  The most popular answer was, “Ash Wednesday.”

Today’s question is: what does that mean for evangelization?

Now, obviously this is something to laugh (or cry) about, since Ash Wednesday is not a sacrament, not even a day of obligation.  Obviously American Catholics are in need of serious catechesis, first, to know what the word “sacrament” even means, and second, to know that in the sacrament we encounter Christ in a unique way.  Every sacrament – especially the most blessed sacrament – contains Christ, the creator and redeemer of the world, really present to work the Gospel in our hearts, in a way that Ash Wednesday simply does not.  To say Ash Wednesday is your favorite sacrament is, on one level, to show that you have never discovered Christ.

Fine.  Point made. Ash  Wednesday should not be your favorite sacrament.

***

But as I received the ashes this year, in a church packed beyond the limits of the fire code, from a priest with a perpetual the-Church-is-such-a-pleasant-place dumb grin on his face, stretched even wider as he imposed the ashes, as if to say, “don’t worry! we’re happy!” I had this question about evangelization.

Every day of the year that priest grins welcomingly.  Give him the benefit of the doubt: his jokes, his pleasantness, his smile, these are all done in sincere hope that people will come back.

But they don’t.  The grins don’t bring people to church.  What brings them to church, in droves?  “Turn away from sin!”  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!”

That’s very strange, isn’t it?  They say you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.  But gosh, it seems like the only time the Church is truly popular is when she tells people they are sinners who are going to die.

***

One aspect of the popularity of Ash Wednesday is surely the sheer physicality of it – one could even say, “sacramentality”: a rich but sometimes confusing word.  Ash Wednesday lets people do stuff.  (Or at least experience stuff being done.)

Anecdotally, the main place I’ve experienced young non-Catholics asking to come to church is to light candles, to be in the gloom, to kneel in front of statues.  Very strange!  You’d think – at least, many people seem to think – that in our modern age, that stuff would be repellent.  But surely part of the popularity of Ash Wednesday is the sheer mixture of physicality and spirituality: smoke, candles, statues, kneelers, ashes!

Let me say that I think this can all be very superstitious: not necessarily a good thing.  Nonetheless, it’s strange how powerful an attraction it exerts on our contemporaries.  Maybe the tradition had a better knack for evangelization than we realize.

***

But at Ash Wednesday, the focus is not on candles – candles never draw people the way Ash Wednesday does.  Candles, in fact, are a lot more upbeat than Ash Wednesday.  (Aren’t they?)

Soot on your forehead.  “Repent!”  “To dust you will return!”  That’s what distinguishes Ash Wednesday – and what draws the crowds.

One of my favorite saints is Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican itinerant preacher in the fifteenth century.  This was his strategy: he went from town to town basically preaching Ash Wednesday.  With anything in history, it’s hard to know how exaggerated the numbers are – did he really draw tens of thousands to hear him tell them to fear hell? – but anyway, it’s historically undeniable that the guy was spectacularly popular.  And really . . . negative.  He preached the Gospel, to be sure.  But always a Gospel tied up with repentance and death and ashes.

Times change.  Vincent Ferrer’s time was miserable: full of war and plague and famine.  Miserable people, maybe, are more attracted to this message than are fat rich Americans.  That’s a good point: there’s plenty of room for asking what speaks to people in our time.

***

But the strange thing is, even today, what draws the crowds is Ash Wednesday.  Maybe, as in the time of Vincent Ferrer, instead of compelling people to go to Mass and receive communion – surely not the wisest part of our Ash Wednesday ministry – we should set up free-standing Ash Wednesday apostolates, with preaching about death and sin and repentance and opportunities to take on physical penances.  (The second most popular part of Catholicism?  Lenten penance!)

Or maybe not.

So I conclude with a serious question, a question to which I don’t know the answer:

What does the popularity of Ash Wednesday mean for your work of evangelization? 

eric.m.johnston

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