Dear Fellow Parishioners,
In recent years, each of our Ash Wednesday observances has differed slightly from the year before, and this year was no exception. We had our usual 8:00 am and 12:15 pm Masses. Later in the morning, Fr. Stuart and I went to the elementary school to provide a Liturgy of the Word via Zoom from the school chapel, piped into each classroom. Then we visited each class to provide the ashes grade by grade. I only made it to Kindergarten and First Grade – Fr. Stuart did the other classes – because our youngest students are also highly inquisitive. They had many, many questions for me. I told them, among other things, that I had also been a student at SVES, so long ago that I rode my own dinosaur to school. Fortunately, most realized it was only a joke.
Fr. Stuart and I also had a Liturgy of the Word and Blessing of the Ashes for our Religious Education (CCD) students and families at 3:45 pm. For the homily, I walked up and down the center aisle for the first time in two years to do a little Q & A with the students. I asked them questions about the readings, Lent and Ash Wednesday so they could contribute what they have learned in class to the homily.
At 6:00 pm and 7:00 pm, we repeated last year’s practice of distributing ashes in the plaza because of the extra COVID protection of being in the open air. It seems to work so well that we may continue this practice, weather permitting, next year.
Where do the ashes come from? They are made, in part, from burning palms from the previous Palm Sunday. However, palms are tough and fibrous, and when they are burned, they yield both ashes and very hard, sharp fibers that are like countless little needles. Unless they are very finely processed to eliminate the sharp fibers, adding a binding agent to make them adhere to the forehead, they will remain prickly dust that falls into one’s eyes. The ashes we use at SV are a combination of very finely ground leftover palms, added to ashes we order from our religious goods supplier, a reasonable compromise between tradition and practicality.
What did the priest, deacon or minister say when imposing the ashes? The phrase, “…you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” is a direct quotation of Genesis 3:19, when God is explaining to Adam and Eve the consequences of their sin of disobedience which led to their fall from grace. It is a reminder of our mortality, and the limits of our earthly life. The alternate phrase, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” is a quotation of Mark 1:15, at the very beginning of Jesus’s public ministry and after the arrest of John the Baptist. It is both a call to hear the Gospel again with fresh ears, and a reminder of the cost of discipleship.
Finally, again this year I used a cotton swab to impose the ashes. I believe it is marginally more sanitary, and is more practical for imparting a clear sign of the cross rather than an indistinct smudge while ashes fall in the eyes. It is also far better for imposing ashes on the many small foreheads of children who receive them. In Italy, they actually use a cross-shaped rubber stamp which leaves (in my view) an unnaturally distinct mark on the forehead, almost like a tattoo. That probably will not be necessary here at SV!
I wish you a blessed and fruitful Lenten season,
Fr. Bill Donahue