Did you know that Ash Wednesday is NOT a Holy Day of Obligation? Seriously! My jaw dropped when I heard this yesterday. The reason: Ash Wednesday is not considered a Feast Day… it’s a fast.
That being said, for a day that does not fall under the purview of obligation, it sure does get good attendance. While I don’t know this for sure (I can let you know at the end of the day), I would be willing to venture that more people show up for church on Ash Wednesday than they do for a typical Sunday. My opinion of the reason why so many people do: giveaways.
If Trade Show people and Athletic Stadium Mascots have learned anything over the years, it’s that people love giveaways. Have you ever been to a professional game and watched people go into an absolute Meg Ryan “I’ll have what she’s having” frenzy when one of the furry green baseball monsters—wearing a gigantic sling-shot on his back—launches a five dollar t-shirt into the foaming mass of humanity? People with several hundred dollar bills in their wallet with fight to catch the exact same airborne prize they could easily purchase—but won’t—50 yards away.
Of course, the reason for the ashes this day is not for greater attendance… if it was, the Vatican would be wise to institute the day with “Keychain Thursday.” But—perhaps appropriately—Ash Wednesday is directly tied to the other day on the Church calendar most associated with giveaways: Palm Sunday.
Yes, the day is supposed to remind us all of our mortality, the fact that we are all finite beings. That the Earth we dwell on existed long before us and—barring an Apocalypse during the next few weeks—will exist long after us. But there’s something significant about the fact that it’s the palms from last year’s Holy Week that are thrown into the Kingsford and marked on our heads.
Palm Sunday was, of course, Jesus’ ticker-tape parade… his Jerusalem equivalent of a procession down New York’s “Canyon of Heroes.” And during last year’s Palm Sunday we all participated in that celebration, joining the crowd in shouting our undying love and loyalty to the Messiah who would save us all… only to throw him under the bus five days later.
And so we mark ourselves with our own disloyalty, with our own propensity to throw God under the bus whenever the situation is most convenient for us. We mark ourselves with the T-shirt remnants of the cross-town rival we passionately rooted for last season when playoff victory looked immanent… but ditched once the team fell behind three games to none in a seven game series. We mark ourselves because the first step of achieving any kind of atonement is acknowledging that we screwed up in the first place. But it’s also the first step… the first step of forty… in receiving the keychain God offers to all who sincerely desire it, warts and all.