That unforgettable Ash Wednesday photo

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 22, 2018

A week later, the image is still clearly etched in my mind.

In the aftermath of the Florida school shootings, dozens of media outlets carried a powerful AP photo that portrayed a blonde woman hugging another woman. The woman’s face is contorted with grief; her arm, around her friend’s shoulders, is at an odd angle as if it is clenched; you can almost see her shaking with sobs.

And on her forehead—unmistakable, front and center in the image—is a cross traced in ashes.

It was Ash Wednesday, remember? And the sight of those ashes, on that woman whose life had suddenly been shattered, evoked all sorts of thoughts appropriate to the season.

First, immediately, one was moved to pray for that woman and her friend. Were they mothers of children who were killed? Or friends? Were they overcome by anxiety, waiting to learn whether their children had survived? We didn’t know. But we did know that there were mothers, and children, who needed prayers.

(Later, on the social media, I saw that many people mocked those of us who called for prayers, insisting that we should concentrate on practical matters. But what would be more practical than prayer? A petition to lawmakers? How would that help the grieving women?)

But then the mind moved on to thoughts about suffering, and the wages of sin. To thoughts about those mothers who will be in mourning all during this season of Lent. Thoughts about a broken world, and how it needs restoration. Thoughts about the killing of the innocent. Thoughts about the Cross, traced on that poor woman’s forehead.

Little did that woman know, when she went to Mass that morning, that her face that day would have more impact than a thousand Ash Wednesday homilies. May the Lord ease her suffering—and help us voluntarily to suffer a bit more for these few weeks—as we prepare to commemorate the greatest of all injustices, the greatest of all triumphs.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: unum - Feb. 23, 2018 4:23 PM ET USA

    Phil, Thank you for the powerful reminder that Lent is not just about fasting and abstinence. I have printed that picture to remind me that Lent is first about prayer. It is about prayer for others who are hurting, asking God to both ease their burdens and to inspire us to ease the burdens of others. It is also about prayer. Prayer for ourselves, that we become more aware of the needs of others, and prayer for those who need His help and support.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Feb. 23, 2018 3:59 PM ET USA

    What critics of prayer miss is that prayer is a response to God's grace. That means God has already decided how to address a problem before the 1st human makes the 1st response (tho speaking of God in time terms is incorrect). Prayer is proof that God hasn't abandoned us to our sin&sorrow. But here's what I want to know. We got to where we are because of the ascendancy of liberalism. Where was the god of liberalism when the consequences of that liberalism fired from the hand of an 18yr old?

  • Posted by: grateful1 - Feb. 23, 2018 3:52 PM ET USA