This is an Ash Wednesday reflection I wrote for Give Us This Day, which publishes a monthly booklet containing the prayers and readings for daily Mass, morning and evening prayer, and a reflection on the Scriptures each day. 

A little smudge of dirt on the forehead has great attraction in our age! Almost magnetically people come to church on Ash Wednesday. Rivaling November’s Thanksgiving as a feast written in our DNA, this simple ritual calls us from offices, schools, and homes. Somehow that public, smudged sign of the cross on the forehead touches the soul and penetrates the heart, providing something that “connects” with the real lives of folks. Each year, I watch as people flock to the Cathedral for Ash Wednesday. They come so politely, reverently. They don’t shove because they can get something free—they just serenely wait for that sign.

Why the attraction? It may have something to do with wanting a simple life. With souls so hectic these days, we all want to stop and take stock. Ash Wednesday has that attraction. I wonder what happens after people leave with their sign . . . before or while they are washing it off that evening before bed. Maybe they recall the words of Sacred Scripture—that call from the Prophet Joel to return to the Lord with all their hearts. These words are repeated by Jesus taking up the same ancient themes—speaking to their hearts about interior conversion—prayer, fasting from too much food, and generosity with others through alms.

My mom always reminded us that going for ashes should not be a badge of our holiness but a way to admit our weakness and our need for God’s grace in our lives. At the end of Ash Wednesday Mass, I remind myself and those present of this advice from my mom.

And with this simple ritual, Lent begins.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz

(Reprinted with permission. Give Us This Day: Daily Prayer for Today’s Catholic, February 2016 [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press]).
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