More thoughts on the #ashtag meme and the message it sends

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 19, 2015

Yesterday—Ash Wednesday—I wrote that I am baffled by the popularity of the #ashtag meme. Maybe it would have been more accurate to say that I am fascinated by the phenomenon. Why do so many Catholics want to show off the smudges on their foreheads?

Several kind readers have offered helpful explanations. Deacon Bob, who apparently shares my puzzlement, remarked that for some people, sacramentals seem more attractive than sacraments. There’s truth in that observation, I’m afraid. There are folks who have more confidence in the power of holy water than in the power of the Eucharist. But if that is the case, it only underlines my question. Why would anyone focus on a comparatively minor outlet of the graces offered through the Catholic Church, rather than on the “source and summit” of those graces? To put it another way, how can you believe in the efficacy of a blessing, if you reject (or ignore) the most essential claim of the Church that bestows that blessing?

Reader Cynthia had another explanation for the #ashtag phenomenon: “I thinker there is an overwhelming need to hear about the need to repent. That is the clarion call of Ash Wednesday.” I strongly agree, and would add that I think we can learn something from the fact that even casual Catholics show up in church on Ash Wednesday. Catholics—even lax Catholics—maybe especially lax Catholics—never lose the sense of a need to straighten out their lives. Don’t we all make little resolutions that some day, one of these days, we’ll begin living the way we know we should? Ash Wednesday as a wonderful opportunity to “begin again.” Many people will make wonderful resolutions as Lent begins, and fail to fulfill them. (If my track record is any indication, I’ll be in that category.) But then another year will roll around, and Ash Wednesday will come again.

An old friend, Paul from Ann Arbor, sent along several interesting thoughts:

I would propose these several answers to your inquiry as to the attractiveness of ashes:
  1. An "#ashtag" picture is personal, doable, and (pacé Phil) understandable: go to church, get ashes, take picture of your face, post, done. (What analogous thing -- easily recognizable and likely understood by one's viewers-- could a million different people do on Easter, Good Friday, etc.?)
  2. Ashes evidence or suggest humility (or, at least a more-or-less effective #humblebrag)
  3. Stated differently: Ashes are "on my face" but not "in your face"--while ashes call attention to my (perhaps haphazard) walk of faith in Christ, they do so in a way that doesn't suggest that the ashes-wearer is reminding the non-Christian viewer that the non-Christian viewer may be going to hell.
  4. No one is seeking to exclude ashes from the public square: I get to give a "testimony" (of limited bandwith) as to my Christianity.
    1. As for the apparent conflict with Joel 2 and Matthew 6 ... that apparent conflict exists in the liturgical act of giving / getting the ashes in the first place. It is a paradox that a thousand lousy homilies probably noted today without resolution or a particularly effective call to action. The addition of social media to the equation adds little to the underlying paradox.

Paul’s 1st point leaves me unmoved. Frankly, I don’t feel a great need to see pictures of my fellow Catholics as they go about their devotions. But if I did want photos, people in their Easter-Sunday finery would be more attractive.

From that point forward, however, Paul becomes more persuasive. Ashes on our foreheads give us a way of evangelizing without the possibility of giving offense. Far from telling unbelievers that they are going to hell, I am acknowledging that I could go to hell, if I fail to cling firmly to the Lord’s offer of salvation.

But our own colleague, Jennifer Gregory Miller, offered my favorite comment on the Catholic Liturgical Year Facebook page:

Why would someone brag about a non-glamorous smudge of dirt in the form of a cross on their face? It is a public witness of our Christian faith and our acknowledgement that we are sinners. It's a sign of death.

On Ash Wednesday, Catholics become living, breathing reminders of the Four Last Things. It beats carrying a sandwich board, or shouting: “Repent! The end is near!” But that is the message we are silently proclaiming. It’s a powerful message, a necessary message, and a message that’s all the more effective because everyone knows it’s true.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: cecercia5768 - Feb. 21, 2015 12:57 AM ET USA

    The best explanation I read was the following: The Ashes signify that I am a sinner, the Cross shows that i have a Savior.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Feb. 20, 2015 2:14 PM ET USA

    It's a huge draw for college kids in our little town who heard about Ash Wednesday their whole lives, and want to experience it. We're glad to see'em.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Feb. 20, 2015 12:02 PM ET USA

    It's a public, communal participation in our devotional life that can be carried outside the walls of the church. This is something largely destroyed (for whatever reason) in the last 40-50 years with the disappearance of other extra-ecclesial communal observances such as fish on Friday. Ashes may be the last remnant of those practices.