Why Ash Wednesday Isn’t a Downer

A woman receives ashes during Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Patrick’s Pro-Cathedral in Newark, N.J. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Although I was only 7 years old at the time, I will always remember the story of what I later referred to as “The Mystery of the Stolen Flower.” It was summertime, and I had been playing outside. In my neighbor’s yard, I spied the most beautiful white flower in a garden filled with colorful blooms. I picked it, studied it up close, and took it back home with me. That’s when it hit me like an asteroid from the sky: I had taken something without asking permission. I had stolen that flower! I was a thief!

I raced into my parents’ bedroom where I confessed my sin between choking sobs. After baring my soul to my mother, I waited patiently for her verdict and the punishment I knew I deserved. To my surprise, she complimented me for coming clean, instructed me to apologize to my neighbor, and made me promise never to take things that didn’t belong to me again. No lost TV privileges, no grounding, no prison time. I was astounded.

I always chuckle when I think back to that moment because in reality, there was no mystery at all. I had confessed within minutes of my crime, and I was ready to accept even the most cruel and unusual of punishments. It’s obvious to me now that I was experiencing a good dose of “Catholic guilt.” We Catholics have taken an otherwise universal response to wrongdoing and rebranded it as something on which we alone have cornered the market. We’re that good at guilt.

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Recently, Pope Francis warned us against an excessive focus on guilt and negativity in our faith. He said that we can’t praise God with “funeral faces” and that pessimism is simply not Christian. That is excellent, timely advice as we approach Ash Wednesday this year.  Unfortunately, our usual somber view of the day hasn’t helped our rep as Catholics any more than our brand of guilt has. We’re marked with ashes from the burning of the previous year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds and told, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

But Ash Wednesday isn’t the downer that many folks make it out to be. And I know that for sure because of an app on my phone.

My son and I have an interest in space. I’m fascinated by the cosmos because looking at the vast expanse of a star-filled sky broadens my perspective; he loves it because that’s where “Star Wars” takes place. So in an attempt to nurture a shared interest with him, we each downloaded an app called “SkyView” on our phones that shows us the stars and planets visible from our current location.

What amazing wisdom twinkles light years above us each night! I’ve learned that all life in the universe can trace its physical origins to supernovas, the scientific term for the death of stars. Billions of years ago, the intense heat of these star explosions allowed the hydrogen and helium at their core to generate heavier elements, like the oxygen and carbon needed to create life. And more amazingly still, the atoms created by the “big bang” are the same atoms that make up my body and the tree outside my window and the water in my drinking glass today. Like the astronomer Carl Sagan famously said in 1980, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff.”

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To be made of star stuff is no small thing. And just knowing that helps me see Ash Wednesday with new eyes. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return is anything but dreary when we shift our perspective. In my mind, it’s a far more hopeful and uplifting message than people give it credit for. I prefer to think about it this way: Remember that you are an essential part of the story of life, death, and rebirth. In other words, you were created in the image and likeness of God. You came from the ashes of miraculous stellar transformations far beyond your ability to comprehend, and one day you will return to this incredible process of divine unfolding. Death isn’t the end, just part of the journey.

Many people, even lifelong Catholics, wrongly assume that Ash Wednesday is a holy day of obligation, but it’s not. I consider it to be more of a “holy day of invitation.” Ash Wednesday invites us into a Lenten journey that, for me, is less about our Catholic guilt over everything we’ve done wrong and more about our Catholic birthright to the “fullness of life” that Jesus spoke of in the Gospels.

Instead of shame and self-hatred over our weaknesses, I see Lent as a time to remember that since we are an irreplaceable part of the unfolding miracle of life, it makes no sense to be anything but, well, miraculous. Lent is a time to set aside those things that keep us from our birthright: jealousy, resentment, self-promotion, score-keeping, stinginess. It’s an invitation to lighten our loads. Instead of bleak and dreary, I find the invitation inherent in Ash Wednesday to be freeing and life-giving. Pope Francis is right — it’s time to set aside our “funeral faces” and make room for joy, and Lent is an ideal time to do that. It’s no small thing to be made of stardust.

Originally published February 12, 2018