At St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, known for its saintly porter, Brother André, now St. André, there is a basilica on the top floor. Its stark simplicity seems to reach into the soul of anyone who steps inside it. The Stations of the Cross are particularly engaging. They are three dimensional life-size stone images, bas-reliefs. Unlike most stations, which are mounted above the heads of the people, these are at ground level. You stand in front of them as if in front of a real person, face to face, hand to hand. The cross is at shoulder height. You can look into the eyes and face of Jesus, the soldier, Mary, Veronica. The nails are large, more like spikes.
Over the past decade, since they have been installed, it is obvious from the discoloration of the stone that many hands have touched them. It is interesting to see where the hands have reached – the face, hands and feet of Jesus, the face of Mary, the cloth of Veronica, the cross. No hand has touched the soldier or Simon of Cyrene. There seems to be an innate desire of humans to touch goodness.
Consider, in this same light, Ash Wednesday. The Church has never made it a Holy Day of Obligation. Yet, it attracts more Church-goers than almost any other day. There is one priest in a parish near a commuter train who distributes ashes to his parishioners early in the morning at the train station. Ashes are given in nursing homes and hospitals, schools and parish Churches. Even in the back room of court houses, ashes have been distributed to court officers, state marshals and prisoners. People respond to ritual. What is the draw? The rite could be speaking to a deep need to be touched by God, to belong to a people who are also touched by God.
In most Western countries, everyone knows that Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, which is the six weeks before Easter Sunday when the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated. Theologically, many probably do not know much more than that. The ritual of ashes is bizarre in a way, which may well be its strength. There is no mistaking or covering over the stark message. The rubbing of ashes on a forehead in the sign of the cross is clear. Jesus Christ died on the cross – ashes are a sign of death. Each of us is connected to this death, thus we each get the ashes, from youngest to oldest. And we walk around all day with the mark on our forehead.
Lent is often the time for many to “give up” things – candy, beer, gossip, desserts. More go to daily Mass or pray a bit more during the season. But the main point is Jesus. It is his death and resurrection that is front and center on our forehead and hopefully in our hearts. Something in us knows we have failed in many ways and there is a God who loves us even unto death. So we get ourselves to church on Ash Wednesday, line up for the sacred ashes and perhaps offer a silent prayer that we do better this year for the love of a God who pours himself out in love for us.
Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.