I had completely forgotten that yesterday was Ash Wednesday until my commute home last evening. But then there they were, the brigade of smudged foreheads, marching through the streets of New York with big sooty thumb prints smeared above their brows. And once again I was amazed to see them, as I have been each year.
From my very first year in New York, when I was working as a priest at Francis Xavier parish in Chelsea, I have suspected that the Ash Wednesday ashes themselves mean far more to most New York Catholics than any thing else about the season of Lent. In fact, New Yorkers go about Ash Wednesday like no other Catholics in all of North America. What seems like every New York Catholic, practicing or peripheral, comes out to get ashes on Ash Wednesday without exception or excuse. It does not matter whether they stay for the whole service, or faithfully fast and abstain from meat (which is the only requirement for the day), or even plan to give-up something for the rest of Lent. They may not intend to so much as step foot inside a church again until Easter. None of this matters; the ashes alone are important. They will lose a whole hour of their pay check or hire a baby sitter just to be there, even for five minutes, so that they can get and wear those ashes proudly up and down the avenues, on the subway, at school, or at work.
Who knows why wearing the ashes is so important. They don't seem to ask that question of themselves; not even if they listen attentively to the scripture passage that is read just before they receive the ashes, in which, ironically enough, Jesus sternly warns them not to go around with ashes on their heads "the way the hypocrites do."
Having grown up in the Midwest where only the Catholics that wanted to would show up on Ash Wednesday voluntarily, and then wiped the ashes off their heads in the parking lot, I am perplexed by New Yorkers. I'm especially confused by why Catholics who are barely holding onto any other parts of their faith choose to go out of their way to get these ashes and walk around with them on their faces all day.
Maybe, as a once-a-year phenomenon, the ashes themselves have never worn out their welcome as did the repeated catechism lessons or early morning communions that so many parochial school children were forced to endure on a regular basis in the past. Maybe like Christmas and Good Friday the ashes have managed to retain some mystical symbolism from childhood, and so grown-up Catholics are drawn to them as much out of nostalgia as duty.
Or perhaps it is ignorance. Perhaps, a vast multitude of unenlightened believers shuffle in each year to submit themselves to this caste-marking totally by wrote or out of fear. Perhaps they even imagine it to be a grievously serious sin not to leave the ashes on all day, and in turn, spend each hour right up to bedtime agonizing over whether they should stay awake until midnight to wash their faces or wait until morning.
And then again, it might possibly be a social thing. Some might fear facing their parents or running into friends on the street without the stamp that verifies they have faithfully done their Christian duty for the day.
But most likely, it is simply a New York thing. Most likely of all, the ashes provide these New Yorkers a way to show that they are good Catholics in a city where people wear their ethnic and religious pride, not just on their sleeves, but directly into one another's faces. And, therefore, by wearing them in public, they feel as if they have linked themselves to a group identity and proclaimed its far-reaching presence to everyone else in one united gesture.
Whatever the reason, my most striking Ash Wednesday memory happened in my first year in New York. I was setting up for the noon service at Francis Xavier and already feeling frustrated with mayhem that had already occurred before the day was even half over. Suddenly I heard the insistent click-clack of heals tromping down the center aisle. A woman dressed for office work and clutching her shoulder bag to her side came rushing toward the altar with the determination of a mounted police officer, her tall mound of curly black hair bouncing to the rhythm of her stride. When she reached the altar, she asked if I could give her ashes right there and then because she could not stay for the service.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I spoke to her as gently as I had when explaining the situation to everyone else throughout the morning. "We have to stick to a schedule. We can only distribute ashes during the service or there will be a steady line from now 'til we lock the doors tonight. Services or no services."
As I was speaking to the woman, I noticed some of the people in the pews itching to line up behind her if I so much as reached for one of the four little glass bowls of ashes that sat on a table near the podium.
"But Fatha', I can't stay," the woman pleaded, her heavy New York accent as thick as her curly mane. "My lunch break's nearly ova'! I have 'a be back in ten minutes!"
"I'm sorry," I replied feeling trapped. "There's nothing I can do. If I give ashes to just one person now, we won't be able to start the noon service."
"But Fatha'," the woman bit her nail and stared over at the table of bowls, "what am I gonna' do?"
"Look," I sighed barely containing my exasperation, "if you want to, you can go on over to one of those little bowls and take some ashes for yourself."
She responded simply by staring at me in horror.
"I'm sorry, that's all I can offer you right now," I added as calmly as possible.
"But Fatha'," she whispered, "would it be the same thing?"
"I'm afraid so," I whispered in reply.
The poor woman took a step back, clearly unable to fathom my offer. In the end, she did exactly as I expected. She went to a seat in the church and waited for the service. The image of her own thumb in the ash bowl or her head without ashes was apparently far more terrifying than the wrath of her boss.