Many years ago I lived in New Orleans, and enjoyed Mardi Gras there mightily! But at midnight on Tuesday night, a remarkable scene happened—one that could happen only in the Big Easy. Streetcleaners—like small tanks, with brushes awhirl—appeared from within the French Quarter and started moving, slowly but persistently, toward the crowds. The people—stumbling, laughing and the rest—were as good as swept out of the Quarter. Ash Wednesday had begun. The party that had started at Epiphany, the Carnival season, now yielded to Lent, the time of penance.
When I consider it, religious nut that I am, I can’t help but think of the comparison to Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The crowds cheered for Jesus, throwing festive palms in his path. We celebrated that last year, as every year, and still, until just this past week, had the palms in our homes. But last night, in our parish, after a festive dinner, or, in other places, at some other time, we burned the palms into the fine ashes that are on our foreheads today. We prepare to enter into the great mystery of death and life, the drama we will celebrate in Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter (the Sacred Triduum).
Did you know that Ash Wednesday is, in many U.S. parishes, the most highly attended liturgy of the year? What is it about us that wants to be marked with our faith, to walk about for much of the day with ashes on our foreheads? I think of two things, though I know there are others. One is our Catholic identity: we want others to know we are faithful. Even those who go to Church rarely are part of the Church and want people to know it. Second is an even broader idea: Whether it’s “Remember, man, that you are dust…” or “Repent and believe the Good News…” we, all of us, deep down, know there is more to life than meets the eye. The ashes on our foreheads allow us to remind each other of that.