The Ash Wednesday wake-up call is the start of a spiritual spring-cleaning I always love, even when the spiritual work is heavy and messy. I love the mass readings (“Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart …”). I love the sense of ancient tribalism that accompanies the smearing of ashes onto foreheads — this outward sign of penance, of belonging, of self-revelation: I belong to Christ, and I am a sinner.
I even love being reminded, as the priest or deacon marks me, that absent my soul I am only dust, and to dust I will return.
There is only one problem with Ash Wednesday: the sermon. It’s always the sermon.
I don’t know what it is with priests, but they just don’t get it. Most of us, without a laugh track or a commentator or a Jumbotron to keep us focused, only have a four-minute attention span, and the priests keep on giving us 10–12 minutes — even on Ash Wednesday at 5 p.m., when people are tired and thinking about supper and the kids are getting cranky.
Were I a priest, this is the sermon I would deliver before we got going with the ashes:
You remember the movie Moonstruck? It’s the story about an Italian family in Brooklyn, a mother named Rose, a father named Cosmo, and their daughter, Loretta, a.k.a. Cher. There’s a part where the mother, Rose — who suspects her husband of cheating —says to the father, “Cosmo, I just want you to know that no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everyone else!” And so is everyone in this church. You’re going to die. And no matter how well you think you’re doing, you’re screwing up, and I don’t need to tell you where you’re screwing up because you know where you’re screwing up. Later in the film, Rose warns her daughter, “Your life’s goin’ down the toilet!” So is yours. You only have the one life in which to make the right choices and do the right thing, and no matter how well you think you’re taking care of it, you’re falling short, and I don’t have to tell you where you’re falling short, because you know where you’re falling short. There’s this other part, where Cher meets an operatic, over-emotional baker — her fiancé’s brother — and they yell and throw furniture, and then they cheat on her fiancé and spend the night together. In the morning, Cher bewails her own behavior, declaring “bad luck! Is that all I’m ever going to have? I should have taken a rock and killed myself years ago!” But her sense of desolation, and what she calls “bad luck,” are both directly related to the choices she has made in her life — aren’t they? Still, Cher is a little better off than the emoting baker. At least she has a sense that she’s getting things wrong. The baker, on the other hand, is completely enthralled to his sentiments, and what he believes they entitle him to. He lives in a haze of feelings, and objects that Cher is expressing remorse, because — get this — she’s making him feel guilty about sleeping with his brother’s intended wife. “I’m in love with you,” he says. As though that permits all things. And Cher gives him a good rap across the face — twice — and says, “Snap out of it!”
How about you? What feelings, what enthrallments are you all wrapped up in to the point where you feel entitled to something? To the point where you can’t even see what the people around you are going through or might need from you? Maybe someone is anxious and needs a good word from you, and you’re not hearing it. Maybe someone is afraid, or feeling insecure. Maybe someone just needs to hear a thank you from you, or a word of praise, a little tenderness in a hard, stressful world. Maybe they need to see you seeing them. And maybe you need to see them loving you in return. Maybe they need you to pray for them — or better yet, to pray with them. So snap out of it. Feelings are good things, but if you over-entertain them, they become like quicksand, and you end up drowning in your own self. And that’s a very lonely thing too, because it means you’ve lost sight of God. You know it; you know you’re not getting it just right; none of us are, if we’re honest. Maybe you don’t know it every day, but you know it on Ash Wednesday, and you come here; you get ashes. We’re glad. We like seeing you here and wish you would come by more often. But while you’re getting the ashes, think about it for a few minutes, okay? About why you came here? Ashes on the forehead. Getting smudged. It’s a primitive, tribal thing; it marks us as belonging to the Tribe of Christ. It harkens back to ancient penitential practices and is also an outward sign of all we will become, whether we are kings or kooks: ashes. There is another scene in Moonstruck, where Cher goes to confession and tells the priest that she has slept with her fiancé’s brother. The priest says, “That’s a pretty big sin!” Cher winces and says, “I know.” “Reflect on your life,” the priest begs, gesturing with his hands. That’s good advice. Think about this: what are you going to do between the time you get these ashes smudged on your forehead, and you actually become them? Think about your life. Get moving on the things you need to fix. You feed your family, you feed yourself, don’t forget to feed your spirit. Consider going to confession, like Cher; chances are you have less compelling sins to unload and even if you don’t, well, don’t worry too much about it because we priests have all heard worse, and we love to assist Christ in saying the words of absolution, just as much as you love to hear them. Maybe even more. We are baptized. We belong to Christ, in the world, but not of it — or we should be. The ashes testify to that; they say, I am claimed for more than the passing age, or the grass that fades. I am claimed for Eternity! If we are doing this Christian thing right, these ashes should also say that we are dead to the world but alive in Christ — or that we’re at least sincerely trying — that we are in exile, ghosts, wandering these mirage-laden plains until we rest in Christ, and in glory. We are, in a sense, Dead Men Walking. But that’s another movie.
Elizabeth Scaliais editor-in-chief of Aleteia’s English edition. This piece first appeared in her blog in 2011 and has been expanded upon here.