There’s something special about Mass on Ash Wednesday — Catholics everywhere scramble to find a church and a Mass time so they can fit it into their day.
If you’re Catholic and walking around with a clean forehead on Ash Wednesday, you kinda feel like you went to work without your pants. But at the same time, when you do have ashes on your head, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that you’re a walking billboard for religion.
It’s a confusing day to be Catholic. If we’re supposed to “pray in secret” as Jesus commands in the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading, is it really a good idea to paste something on our foreheads to tell the world that we’re practicing our faith? On the other hand, when you see someone at the deli counter wearing their own smudge of ashes, you can give them a silent nod with the knowledge that you’re in this thing together and that’s pretty cool.
Perhaps Ash Wednesday is an important day for Catholics of all types because those ashes signify our participation in a community that’s walking toward God together. Even for those who haven’t been to Mass in ages, receiving and wearing those ashes is an important outward sign of an inward reality: we’re all part of this family.
There’s more to Ash Wednesday Mass than just the ashes, though. If it were just about smudging foreheads, they’d have a drive-through lane next to the church! When you’re at Mass on Ash Wednesday, here are three things to notice beyond the ashes.
1. Standing in line
When we walk forward to receive ashes, we walk in a line, just like we do to receive Communion. This line is a great equalizer — rich and poor, young and old, Yankees fans and Red Sox fans — we all walk in the same line toward one destination. Many stand in front of us, many stand behind.
It’s not a bad image for why we turn to faith: we walk together toward the table where God meets us, and then we return to where we came from. We’re all poor and hungry in line for a meal. We come and we go, together.
We can think of Mass as a beating heart, drawing us in, sending us out. When we join this rhythm, we’re restored and renewed as we approach the altar, and then we are sent out to take that nourishment to others.
That doesn’t mean that every time we come to Mass, we have an earth-shattering epiphany, or even an emotional experience. It just means that we come to Mass to connect our lives to God’s life in ordinary ways. We stand in lines at the grocery store and the post office. In line, we become one of many, and we learn to wait. The line on our way to receiving Communion is the same — we join a people walking toward God; together, we wait to be fed.
Every Catholic Church in the world has a cross hanging above the altar. Correction: every Catholic Church in the world has a crucifix hanging above the altar — a cross with the body of Jesus hanging on it.
The figure of Jesus looks different in every Church, but we recognize in his figure our own humanity: the arc of the ribcage, the veins in his feet, the muscles of his legs. And every crucifix always captures one telling detail of Jesus’ body: his elbows.
As you read this, right now, roll up your sleeve and stretch out your hand — either one. Stretch it all the way out and raise your palm upward. Now look at the inner crease of your elbow. See the way your upper arm and bicep flow into that intersection vertically, and how the forearm reaches out horizontally? They take the same pattern as links in a chain.
Every crucifix captures this piece of anatomy differently, but it’s also perfect every time — take a look next time you’re in a church. It reveals something about the way Jesus’ body is stretched to its limit. That’s a feeling we can all identify with.
The cross is unavoidable for anyone who identifies with Jesus. From the cultural Catholic to the pope, you can’t connect yourself to this belief system without confronting the fact that the man at the center of it was crucified. And, further, this community lifts up that suffering as something worth our veneration. We mark ourselves with the sign of the cross every time we pray, for goodness’ sake.
The only way it makes any sense is in the light of Jesus’ identity as Son of God who was raised from the dead. His suffering and death opens a way for our own suffering and death to lead to something new. At the end of the day, that’s why we follow Him. That’s also why we’re preparing ourselves this Lent to celebrate the resurrection with our Easter feast.
But to get to the resurrection, we have to pass through the cross. Lent is a time to increase our capacity to bear suffering with hope, to sacrifice in love — just like that man stretched out on the cross.
There’s a regular call-and-response to the Mass that can be disorienting if you’re new to it (don’t let that get in the way, though). But there’s one spot in the Mass when there’s a call and no response.
After we hear the readings of Scripture, we gather around the table. The priest prays over the bread and wine as it becomes Jesus’ body and blood. Then, quite suddenly, the prayers stop and he starts to tell a story. It’s the narrative from the Last Supper: Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body.”
It’s a moment that comes and goes in a blink, but it’s a telling detail that the core of what we do around this table is to share a story. That’s what we do at many meals with friends and families — we share our stories as a way to share our lives.
When the priest raises the host and chalice during this story, we can only respond with silence. At every other moment of Mass, the priest speaks and we respond, but there’s only one response to this story: the silence of it sinking in.
If you listen closely, this is story of Jesus accepting his cross, and in the retelling, His decision becomes real for us — in fact, we can step into those words and make them our own. When we care for parents or children or a spouse, when we support a friend in need, when we serve the poor, we are saying the same thing: this is my body, this is my blood. Take and eat, take and drink.
So the silence of that moment in Mass is a time to connect the dots between what is happening on the altar and what is happening in our lives. It is nothing new to say that we need more silence in our lives today, but the Mass teaches us that silence isn’t just removing the noise (though that’s an essential first step). Silence invites us inward, to listen to the deep places in our hearts where the Lord is present with us in our suffering — because he suffered, too. That’s the only place we’ll ever find hope.
Lent is a time to embrace all three of these elements of the Mass in some way. We’re preparing for Easter glory, but to embrace new life, we need to turn away from old ways of living. Even if you’re the pope, there’s always room for conversion and deeper faithfulness.
It helps to make that effort together, with a community on the same journey.
It helps to embrace the cross — to confront our brokenness and accept the suffering and sacrifices we are asked to take on.
And it helps to use silence — to remove the noise that might be distracting us from hearing the movements of our heart.