Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Marked Woman

I don't usually wear my religion publicly. My crosses and my rosary are discreet. When asked what I did over the weekend, I rarely mention that I went to church, unless I joke about how Hubs and the kids wait impatiently for me while I greet and chat with friends. (After 20 years in the same parish, we have a lot of friends!)

So why do I go to church on Ash Wednesday and get marked with ashes? Why do I continue to wear them until bedtime? Why do I subject myself to the old joke, "Hey, you've got something on your forehead!"

There have been years that I haven't been able to get to Mass or an Ash Wednesday service. And those years I've felt that I've missed something important. Ash Wednesday is as significant as New Year's Day, without the football games. It's the start of another season, another time of reflection, of resolving to do better, to become more like Jesus.

I've always been fascinated by cultural anthropology. In the liberal, hedonistic city of San Francisco, the Catholic Churches overflow during noontime Mass on Ash Wednesday. The Paulists at Old St. Mary's hold a special service (readings and ashes) at the Hyatt Regency hotel at the Embarcadero that is standing room only. And then we marked people disperse outward into the crowd until, eventually, we stand alone in our witness, much as the apostles did once they left their room after the Pentecost.

I tend to forget that I'm wearing ashes, like I tend to forget that I'm a sinner, so remarks often catch me by surprise. Yesterday, my ashes reminded one co-worker that it was Ash Wednesday and that he should go to church. Another co-worker commented, "Well, at least this year, you can tell what it is!" DS#2 laughed when he saw me and said, "Oh, yeah, ashes!" (One of my favorite pictures of him was when he was receiving ashes in Second Grade. His eyes are downcast and he is oblivious to the photographer. The picture appeared in the local paper the next day.)

And I worry about my motives for receiving ashes in the first place and then leaving them on. Am I being too much like the Pharisee, standing on the corner and praying loudly? Are my ashes a silent rebuke to those who have fallen away from the Church or a mark of arrogance to those who do not believe?

The ashes are, after all, merely what's left of the palm leaves we waved last year on Palm Sunday. They have no power in and of themselves, except as ritual, except as reminder that, yes, I am a sinner, yes, I will return to dust, and, yes, Jesus Christ gave up His Life to save my soul. My soul.

And for that, I can put up with hearing the old joke about my forehead many, many times.