In the Roman Catholic church year, Ash Wednesday is neither a dominical nor Marian solemnity (popularly put, not a holy day of obligation), nor is its primary symbol, the imposition of ashes on the head, a sacrament (rather, a sacramental). Yet, as our Pray Tell readership no doubt have, like me, observed over the years, enthusiasm for “getting your ashes” remains strong across wide sectors of US Catholicism, even as annual participation in the sacrament of penance (“going to confession”) continues to plummet to newer all-time lows.
It has long seemed to me that this specimen of “primary theology” (theological prima, in the Schmemann-influenced-school-of-thought) warrants continued description and analysis. The phenomenon served as the case-in-point for the opening plenary address I gave to the annual convention of the College Theology Society a half-decade ago and has figured elsewhere in journal articles and, now, my most recent book.
But yesterday, Ash Wednesday 2022, I gratefully benefited from invitations to address the topic more widely.
America magazine yesterday published my commentary on the topic as the latest installment of their Faith and Reason series, “Why so many Catholics want to get their ashes–even if they rarely go to Mass.”
And I am currently on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, to serve on a panel during the Accountability, Trust, and Healing conference, now underway. But first, yesterday, I had the privilege of preaching at their Theology Department’s ecumenical Ash Wednesday service, followed by giving the lecture, “Ash Wednesday, Ecumenism, and Catholic Identity,” to a symposium of the Liturgical Studies faculty and graduate students.
As I describe and analyze in my America piece, various ritual forms of Ash Wednesday continue to develop and proliferate in Anglo-Catholic, Lutheran, Protestant, and other Christian groups, including the Ashes to Go, Glitter Ash Wednesday and Glitter+Ashes movements.
Certainly, these phenomena together contribute fresh evidence (case studies, if you will) for how inscribing or placing symbols directly on bodies (wedding rings , tattoos, baptismal water, chrism or oil of the sick, ashes) comprise profound performances of personal and group identity formation.