As Catholics, we like anonymity. We like to blend into the crowd. We don’t wear yarmulkes like Orthodox Jews, or plain clothes like the Amish. We can generally go unnoticed.
Until Ash Wednesday.
With that big, ashen cross on our foreheads, everyone knows who we are. It’s a sign that says, “Look at me! I’m a Catholic!”
What can you do? You can hide your ashes or wash them off. You can hit up that evening Mass and then go straight home so that no one sees you. But, we’re all about seizing the moment here, so I want to challenge you to “rock your ashes” instead. Here are five reasons why you should keep your cross and wear it proudly on Ash Wednesday.
1. It builds courage. “You can do it, you can do it.” I have to pump myself up before I can go out in public on Ash Wednesday. My version of “putting out into the deep” (Luke 5:4) is stepping into Kroger. But I do it because it builds courage. If I can find the strength to step out, then I can start a conversation. I can answer a question, extend an invitation, or pray with someone. Wearing that cross is a school in the courage I need to evangelize.
2. It increases humility and honesty. “Why are you so afraid?” Every year I ask myself that. I don’t know about you, but for me it’s pride. Pride is the source of my reluctance. If people notice me, then they’ll find out I’m a big Catholic imposter. They’ll find out I don’t have all the answers, I don’t have it all together, and I’m not that holy.
Pride fights to never be exposed. But, if you’re open, Ash Wednesday can inspire you to be honest about who you really are. Who are you? You’re a Catholic. You’re broken. You’re returning to dust one day, and you’re probably not ready yet. Ash Wednesday says, “No more hiding.” Let’s acknowledge who we are, and then we can help each other be better.
3. It provides seize-able moments. If you ever needed a conversation-starter, this is it. Walk through Kroger with a cross on your forehead and see what happens. Some people will look at you and keep walking. Couples will wonder in hushed tones, “What’s that all about?” Others will just ask you directly.
For me, it’s always the cashier. I preach the gospel to more cashiers on Ash Wednesday than any other day of the year. Think about it: That time when she’s scanning groceries and you’re just standing there – that’s a moment. We’re called to seize those moments. Ash Wednesday gives them to us in abundance.
4. It emphasizes morality and mortality. “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You’re going to die one day. It’s a sobering truth, and if you’re like me you try not to think about it. You may even avoid things that remind you of death, like hospitals and nursing homes.
But, Ash Wednesday forces you to acknowledge your mortality. And, when you look death square in the face, moral decisions take on a whole new gravity. Are you cavalier about sin because death is far off? Or, are you choosing the good right now because you could die tomorrow? As St. John Vianney once said, “To die well we must live well.”
5. It is the cost of discipleship. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). It’s the hallmark of a disciple to do what we are considering here. And, as Luke adds, we’re supposed to do this daily. Of course, it’s not always a literal cross, but, if we’re following Jesus, it’s always there. Our pains, our humiliations, our persecutions, our sacrifices – they’re always there. Ash Wednesday reminds us to take them up bravely, like Jesus did, because it’s the only way to be where He is — in heaven, the fruit of a cross carried with Christ.