Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, which is typically one of the busiest days of the year in every Catholic parish. This year was no different. We started with our normal 7:30am Mass, which reached maximum capacity (160) under the current COVID restriction, which was really nice. Just after the parish Mass, we had Mass for some of the students at the Catholic Academy of Stamford. Because they can’t all attend in person, Fr. Mariusz and I went over to the school to give ashes to the children who watched the livestream of the Mass from their classrooms. Fr. Mariusz then went to give ashes to the residents of Sunrise Senior Living who requested them. Then, from 4-6pm, there was a steady stream of people who came to the Church of St. Cecilia to receive ashes. Under normal conditions, the distribution of ashes takes place in the context of a Mass or a Liturgy of the Word. This year, however, the Bishop gave permission for us to have an open period of time when we could give out ashes outside of liturgy so that we could accommodate people who otherwise would not be able to come because of attendance restrictions. He also gave us permission to use cotton swabs to apply ashes to people’s foreheads – resulting, to my surprise, in much more perfect-looking crosses. Over the course of those two hours, I would guess several hundred people came to the church. Not just to receive ashes, but to light candles at the various shrines, and to kneel and pray in the sacred space. The experience was a reminder that Stamford is home to a heck of a lot of Catholics.
And they turned out yesterday, participating in an ancient tradition of the Church that goes back to at least the second century. It has its roots in the pre-Christian world, as we can see in the Book of Jonah, where the people of the Assyrian city of Nineveh responded to Jonah’s prophecy of their destruction by calling a fast, with the people covering themselves in sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their repentance. Wearing the ashes is meant to be a remedy for our pride, an acknowledgement of our nothingness, our insignificance, our mortality – “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It would seem unlikely that people who have spent the past 12 months wearing masks would be at all interested in receiving yet another reminder of their mortality. But they showed up in droves. That’s because Ash Wednesday is not just a day on which we are reminded that we will someday die. The sign of the cross in which the ashes are traced is also a reminder of the One in whom we put our trust. The ashes thus become both a sign of death and a sign of hope in the resurrection of Christ – a full share of which is offered to us through baptism, and life as a member of the Church.
After seeing all of those people yesterday, I’ve decided that one of the things I will pray for this Lent is that, among the many who came to church (perhaps for the first time in a year – perhaps for the second time in two years), more than a few will awaken to what is being offered to them here. I will pray that they will somehow realize that the fullness of life is found in the Church, which became their home and their family when the water was poured over them and the Most Holy Trinity invoked. I will pray that they come home and bless us with their presence, and that the sins of the faithful (especially my own) will not prove an obstacle to the working of God’s grace in their hearts. For Our Lord did not receive them into the Church simply so that they might receive lifeless ash on their foreheads. He desires that in the Church they receive both the mercy that revives His living Presence in their souls through confession and the life-giving food of His Flesh & Blood in the Most Holy Eucharist. Perhaps we could all pray and offer sacrifices for this intention each day during Lent, that amid the fear of death that hangs over everything, people will rediscover the life of Christ offered them in the Church.