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It's About the Cross, Not the #Ashtag

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Feb 18, 2015

I was surprised to see controversy arising from the idea of taking an Ash Wednesday selfie showing one's ashes and posting it on social media. Even the USCCB had a contest using the #ashtag as an entry. While I'm not a fan of hashtags, I did find this one rather clever. Before there was even a Facebook I've been taking photos of my children after they received their ashes, so I admit I did snap a selfie with my youngest son and shared it on social media.

What is the hullabaloo about? Is it the idea that people are only going to Mass to get ashes to make a selfie? That there is question of intention on the reception of ashes? That the ashes shouldn't be on public display? That somehow sharing on social media the ashes become degraded? 

I think the discussions miss the point about the ashes on Ash Wednesday. It's not about the #ashtag. It's about the cross.

I'm not going to address the other denominations that hand out ashes on street corners and coffee shops, but only look at the Catholic tradition. In my area there never has been a lack of attendance for Mass on Ash Wednesday. I realize some people mistake this as a holyday of obligation. Or maybe they are just coming for the free handout (we might see them again on Palm Sunday for the other giveaway). Whatever the motivation, Mass attendance has always been strong, and most people stay for the entire Mass and aren't skedaddling after they receive their ashes.

As far as the idea that people are coming ONLY to get the ashes and publish selfies, that leaves me a little puzzled. Christ welcomes us all with open arms. He doesn't judge our intentions, but He tries to reach all of us where we are. Some might have come only for the ashes, but perhaps left with a repentant heart turned to the Gospel. The #ashtag selfie can be a reminder for us to pray for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. The #ashtag is a cross on the foreheads, a reminder to pray that this Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season can be an opportunity of grace for all of us.

The Symbol of the Ashes

As I mentioned yesterday, our culture is no longer predominantly Christian. So many people don't even understand what is Ash Wednesday. And we live in a time where Christians are being martyred for their faith. Perhaps at first glance an ash selfie looks self-centered, but is it? 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. That little mark on the forehead speaks volumes, and with social media the message spreads even farther.

And practicing Catholics know that the #ashtag is only part of it this day. Behind it hides the cross of fasting and abstinence of Ash Wednesday. Hunger pains and caffeine withdrawal are not shown in that cross of ashes, but the act of fasting seals the message of the ashes on our hearts. This day makes us well aware of our frail human condition. 

The Tradition of Ashes

While the Gospel of Ash Wednesday tells us to pray in secret and to wash our faces, the act of putting on ashes is public, and harkens back to the early Church. Originally ashes were only imposed on public sinners. Their public scandal required public reparation. The sinners would appear in front of the Church on Ash Wednesday wearing penitential clothing. The priest would then sprinkle them with ashes, clad them in sackcloth, and the sinners would have to perform their penance all through Lent publicly, being barred from Church until Holy Thursday. 

But other faithful wanted to bear the humiliation of Ash Wednesday even though they weren't public sinners. They recognized themselves also as sinners. By the 12th century all Catholics including the clergy would receive ashes at the beginning of Lent. 

And what an amazing symbol is that cross of ash on our forehead! Romano Guardini in his fabulous little book Sacred Signs gives a rich description:

What fire does in an instant, time is always doing to everything that lives....All this brilliant color, all this sensitive, breathing life, falls into pale, feeble, dead earth, and less than earth, into ashes. It is the same with ourselves. We look into an opened grave and shiver: a few bones, a handful of ash-grey dust.

          Remember man 
          that dust thou art 
          and unto dost shalt thou return.

Ashes signify man's overthrow by time. Our own swift passage, ours and not someone else's, ours, mine. When at the beginning of Lent the priest takes the burnt residue of the green branches of the last Palm Sunday and inscribes with it on my forehead the sign of the cross, it is to remind me of my death.

          Memento homo 
          quia pulvis 
          est et in pulverem reverteris.

Everything turns to ashes, everything whatever. This house I live in, these clothes I am wearing, my household stuff, my money, my fields, meadows, woods, the dog that follows me, my horse in his stall, this hand I am writing with, these eyes that read what I write, all the rest of my body, people I have loved, people I have hated, or been afraid of, whatever was great in my eyes upon earth, whatever small and contemptible, all without exception will fall back into dust.

Human Frailty and Strength of Christ

The ashes on our forehead are our public witness that we acknowledge our failure and sins. We admit our human weakness and plead for Christ's help, because we are powerless without Him. 

The sign of the cross on our foreheads is a reminder of the other times of our Christian lives that we have been signed with cross and holy oil: the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Anointing of the Sick. The sign of the cross sealed on our foreheads is a sign of the strength of and bonding with Christ.

On Ash Wednesday this cross upon our forehead is different. There is no sacrament, no holy oils. We are signed with dust, a reminder of our death and decay. The ashes remind us of our sins. And yet, that cross of ashes is not doom and gloom. The cross gives us hope, reminding us that our source of grace is Christ crucified. He conquers sin and death. By receiving that cross of ashes, or #ashtag, we are making the first step to return to Christ and walk with Him on this Lenten journey, because without Him we are and can do nothing!

The #ashtag really is all about the cross. We just have to read it the right way.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is an experienced homemaker, home schooler, and authority on living the liturgical year. She is the primary developer of CatholicCulture.org's liturgical year section. See full bio.

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