Why is Ash Wednesday Mass So Popular?


It’s that time of year again.

Ash Wednesday looms. Lent approaches.

And when I say that, I’m sure everyone is like, “Yippee! Penance!”

No one really likes self-denial. Although, can you really call giving up chocolate for 40 days (not including Sundays) suffering? There’s people in the world that don’t eat for days. Lent is not hardship.

But a strange thing will happen soon…at least it’s strange to me.

People will go to Ash Wednesday Mass. In droves! They will pack the churches. You don’t think that’s strange? They don’t have to go. Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation. You’ll never see crowds packing the church for the Feast of the Assumption…or even on Sundays.

All year long people complain about going to confession, giving up meat on Fridays (outside of Lent), and praying regularly. But on Ash Wednesday they fast all day, voluntarily go to Mass, and walk around with a black smudge on their foreheads like a badge of honor.

What is it about Ash Wednesday?

I think the symbolism of that Mass presents a powerful reminder of something we all know but don’t normally want to admit. We’re not all that.

Ash Wednesday draws together the essential themes of Lent and delivers them in a visible, tangible, and highly charged way. Ashes, deserts, sin, the call to repentance, and the promise of deliverance. Those are powerful images. The only thing missing is sackcloth.

Fasting, sackcloth, and ashes are the traditional signs of repentance. When Jonah announced the destruction of Nineveh, the king called a fast, put on sackcloth, and poured ashes over his head so that God would see their change of heart and spare them. Could you see President Obama repenting of his anti-life stance then donning sackcloth and ashes?

When the lives of the Jews in Persia were at stake, Esther put on sackcloth and ate nothing for three days so God would save them.

The symbolism of Ash Wednesday says we’re not sufficient. We’re in over our heads. We sin and don’t deserve God’s help. However, we are throwing ourselves down at his feet and asking him to rescue us. And that really is the Gospel.

Deep down, we all know we’re not completely together, no matter what we public face we project. We screw things up. We make a mess. We need help with life and can’t do it alone. Most of the time we don’t turn to God for that help. But on this one day, Ash Wednesday, a lot of us recognize the need for God’s mercy and grace to get by.

That is really the essence of Lent. A spiritual reset. Wipe the hard drive clean, reinstall the operating system, and start fresh.

Lent is a purification. At the end is Christ’s Resurrection…and yours provided you die with him.

Repent and believe. Ash Wednesday sets the stage.


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  1. My take on Ash Wednesday: people like the intimate, blunt touch of the priest’s thumb against their foreheads, and accepting the mark of that touch. It gets right to the fundamental wisdom of sacraments.

    Of course it’s not a sacrament. As a symbol of repentance you could could mark your own forehead with a cross of ashes. But that would be skipping the bit where someone with Jesus’ authority reminds you of your sinfulness; and you meekly accepting that reminder. Without necessarily understanding the depth of the ashes ritual, I think that’s the main reason so many non-Cats will come to receive ashes.

    • I think you’re right. The mark of the ashes speaks of the power of the sacraments. It’s that tangible touch from God’s representative, the material mark of the ashes, physical act of acknowledging your repentance. The ashes aren’t sacraments but the sacraments have that same feel.

  2. Lent as spiritual re-set: I love that! Thanks for the post.

  3. Catherine says:

    Maybe seeing so many people in church for Ash Wednesday will decrease if we statr to adopt the “drive by” distribution of ashes,.



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