06 February 2008

Wash Your Face!


Here's the deal: the gospel for Mass this morning reports that Jesus unambiguously condemned as hypocritical the Jewish practice of marking oneself while fasting or doing penance, including rending garments, wailing, ringing bells, and (drumroll, please) wearing ashes on one's head. Please, please, please spare me the litanies of excuses: it's a public witness; it shows Catholic strength; its Tradition, ad nau. Your daily life in Christ is your public witness. Catholic strength is best shown in humility and love not numbers. If wearing the ashes all day is a ecclesial tradition, then why does the church put such an explicitly "do not wear ashes on your forehead" gospel reading on Ash Wednesday?

OK! Now, here's the second deal: buy me a book from my Wish List and I won't nag you about your smudge. COME on! I can't spend my Lenten season reading postmetaphysical theologies as my spiritual reading. . .I'm feeling the need to think/pray through how the Cross conquers nihilism. . .

H/T to Jeff Miller at CurtJester for the cool pic. . .


  1. If wearing the ashes all day is a ecclesial tradition, then why does the church put such an explicitly "do not wear ashes on your forehead" gospel reading on Ash Wednesday?

    To show that we're not the victims of naive literalism when we read the scriptures according to the mind of the Church.

    Matt 23:9, Padre? ;)

  2. And I thougth that I was mortifying myself wearing the ashes in front of my colleagues...

  3. Zadok,

    Believe me! I hear that worry...

    But I'm not falling victim to biblical literalism here. Jesus is making a very fine point about public religious behavior. In essence, he is saying don't go about drawing attention to yourself when you do the private work of growing in holiness. I understand this to mean that we must be exceedingly careful about not doing good works, etc. simply to be seen doing so. Anyway, my concern grew out of a comment made to me two years by a student. After my homily exhorting the kiddies to wash their faces, the young woman informed me that she would keep her ashes on b/c it was one sure way to determine who is a Real Catholic and who isn't. Case closed.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  4. Anonymous8:50 PM

    Does intention make any difference? Like, if I am embarassed to wear them out (not many Catholics live where I live), but I do it anyway to become less attached to others' opinions, is that ok? Or should I still wash my face because wearing them out makes Catholics look pompous?

  5. Runner,

    Intention does make a huge difference. I think Jesus is warning us against a very human failing in our religious practice: pride of belonging and the need to be seen as holy. I often hear people say that they wear the ashes as a form of mortification...OK...but be careful: this is a trap as well! If you want to mortify yourself, then wash your face, grin like an idiot, and fast in private. If this seems difficult then I think my point is made...

    Fr. Philip, OP

  6. Honestly Fr Philip, I'm astonished that you seem to be serious about this. Yes, the comment made by that student was silly and certainly you should preach against that kind of attitude, but asking people to wash off the sacramental they've received strikes me as bizarre.

    Given that Catholics have been wearing ashes publicly on Ash Wednesday for such a long time, the efforts of an individual priest to tamper with this long established custom so dear to popular piety seems little different from those who fill holy water fonts with sand for the duration of Lent. Meaning no disrespect to you personally - I greatly respect your preaching and your pastoral insights - I would be (mildly) scandalised to hear a priest encourage people to wash off the symbol of their mortality immediately after the Ash Wednesday Mass. It would be almost akin to hearing a preacher tell his congregation to not display a crucifix in ones home or to stop wearing religious jewellery.

    I understand your concerns and you should express them in your homily, but interfering with the long-established and accepted usage of ashes which seems to be universal throughout the United States does not seem to be a fitting thing for an individual priest to do. It's likely to cause confusion amongst the laity and creates the appearance of division amongst the clergy. If ashes should properly be washed off, that should be a matter for an individual bishop to determine for his diocese, or for the Episcopal Conference to determine for the whole country.

    Have a look at the Shrine of the Holy Whapping for a more upbeat appreciation of ashes.

  7. Zadok,

    Don't get me wrong here! I love Ash Wednesday and the sacramental...I'm all about preaching mortality, impermanence, etc. But we can't just dismiss the straightforward teaching of Christ b/c someone's delicate sense of tradition might get tweaked. Now, how serious I am about running to the sink to wash off the ash is up for debate...it's not like I went around campus yesterday denouncing undergrads with ashes as hypocrites! Though that would have been funny...Probably more than anything I'm wanting to point up the rather obvious contradiction btw the gospel we read on A.W. and the actual liturgical practice of the day. Wearing ashes on one's forehead is hardly the Be All of the day. I note with some interest that the Roman practice is to have ashes sprinkled on one's head...lots of pics on the web yesterday of our Holy Father being "ashed" in this fashion at Santa Sabina. If the point of A.W. is to publicly display ashes in order to show up one's mortality, then I'm not sure how having them sprinkled on one's head (unless you're bald!) helps to accomplish this. Seems to me that being reminded of one's mortality is the point of A.W. And about this all good Christians should be delighted.

    Thanks for the comments!

    Fr. Philip, OP

  8. Thank you, Father, for saying this. This has hit me every year that I've gone to an Ash Wednesday mass (I became a Catholic as an adult): "Isn't anyone listening to the Gospel reading?"
    It is the same every year, and then we all walk out of there wearing them! Thanks for confirming that I'm not crazy for feeling like we're ignoring the Gospel.

  9. Anonymous10:10 AM

    Thanks your answer - that makes sense.

    And I think you are making a good point with this post- sometimes we get so caught up in "loyalty to the Church" that our loyalty to Christ suffers.

  10. Anonymous8:26 PM

    Thank you, Zadok, for defending eloquently a sane Roman viewpoint on the matter.

    I've heard this nonsense periodically, but I'm very surprised to hear it from Fr. P.

    Maybe it's something in the water down here, since I've heard it before from another priest at UD -- Msgr. Milam Joseph.

  11. Flambeaux,

    "...sane ROMAN viewpoint..."?!

    I don't think so. Check out this pic from Whispers in the Loggia.


    Now, what's the "sane Roman viewpoint" again?

    Fr. Philip, OP

  12. Anonymous8:41 PM

    It is my understanding that the sprinkling on the head was (and may still be) reserved to clergy. The ashes were sprinkled on their tonsure.

    And to be Roman includes to honor local custom, which in this place, and until further notice from the competent ecclesiastical authority, is to leave the cross/smudge on the head.

    I don't know where the impulse to exhort the Church Militant to wash their heads comes from, besides pride.

    I don't know why the juxtaposition, and I can't say I'm particularly concerned. Let better theologians than I debate the issue among themselves, and let the Faithful be informed by the competent authority.

  13. Anonymous8:42 PM

    FWIW, I probably would have simply rolled my eyes and moved on, but you seem in earnest about this.

    That concerns me.

  14. Flambeaux,

    First, sprinkling on the head may have been reserved for the clergy, but no longer. I'm told it is common Roman practice.

    Second, "custom" is exactly that: custom. As far as I know there are no laws regarding this.

    Third, to accuse me of being prideful for clearly stating the content of the gospel reading for A.W. is uncharitable. My motivation for REPEATING Jesus' words from the gospel is very simple: from the moment the bishop laid hands on my head and made me a priest, I have preached the gospel. Normally, this keeps me in the good graces of the Church's orthodox laity and clergy, but--and I knew it would eventually--this issue seems to tweak my usually faithful audience. This is why being orthodox has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative, traditional or non-traditional.

    There is a direct contradiction btw the devotional practice of a Catholic wearing ashes on a day of fasting and Jesus' admonition to the crowd not to wear ashes on a day of fasting. That this point is somehow consistently lost in the rush to defend the practice seems exceedingly odd to me. Basically, I am being told to ignore the plain words of Christ against public displays of piety on fasting days...AND to ignore them on the every fasting day we put ashes on people's heads! Ironic.

    Like I said above...I'm not sure how earnest I am. The contradiction is there. I am not satisfied with the "don't be so literal, Father" defense. In my short experience as a priest I have seen and heard too many Catholics use yesterday's sacramental as a mark of group pride or as a way of being "better than thou." That concerns me.

    Frankly, another thing that concerns me is how quickly my orthodox credentials are called into question when I disagree on a single, minor issue of liturgical practice. How easily we fall, uh?

    Fr. Philip, OP

  15. Anonymous10:26 PM

    I don't believe I challenged your orthodoxy. I merely mentioned the other source I'd heard this argument from in an Ash Wednesday homily some years back.

    If others have challenged your orthodoxy over this, I am sorry to hear that. Your one of the few priests I know where that doesn't even cross the back of my mind on a bad day. FWIW.

    I don't see the contradiction you speak of, as I don't see how the fasting Jews, voluntarily wallowing in sack cloth and ashes are equivalent to those who permit the imposition by the Church of Blessed Ashes on their heads as a memento mori.

    That some misuse, or misconstrue, the symbol is regrettable and an opportunity for teaching.

    But to somehow infer that Christ's words and the custom are in conflict is strange to me. I always worry when people start talking about the plain meaning of Scripture, whether clergy or laity, since I don't think there is any such thing.

    For whatever reason, decided well above my pay grade and long before my birth, it became customary for Catholics to not wash the ashes off. I could speculate as to why, marshalling Scripture, Tradition, tradition (custom), and common sense. It might even be persuasive.

    As you rightfully point out, through Holy Orders, you possess a teaching office that I lack. But does that not also come with a corresponding obligation to ensure you're teaching something true and good?

    I certainly don't want this to metastasize into some feud.

    I still humbly seek your counsel.

    I have voiced that concern -- perhaps doing so publicly in your comment box was rash and ill advised. This might have been a matter better suited to email or personal conversation.

    I think your root concern (those who view it as a "mark of the elect", as in some bizarre Calvinist/Jansenist Twilight Zone) is valid, and one worth the expenditure of a great deal of energy to correct.

    To that end, I'll let the matter drop, unless you want to pursue it.

    It's really neither here nor there to me in the long run. I'm much more worried about the pernicious influence of Modernist Heresy on the reworking of the Prayer for the Jews. (JOKE! Really...)

    As to AW and my personal practice, the last time I recall receiving the Ashes before going to work was...2001...maybe? Usually I only have opportunity to hit a Mass after sundown, as I did at SMV this year.

    I am, however, attending to the Gospel in so far as I'm striving that my penance will go unnoticed this year. I am having difficulty answering the question "what are you giving up for Lent?" from my coworkers. Most of them aren't Catholic, but they know about Lent. Sort of. Well, as much as any cradle Roman these days, I suppose.

    Regarding how quickly we fall, even the righteous man falls seven times a day. I don't claim to be righteous, but I'm trying with God's help.


    In Christ,

  16. Anonymous2:43 AM

    I should preface my comment by saying that I am a priest in the Old Catholic/Independent Catholic tradition, not a Roman one. So you all might want to take my comment with a grain of salt.

    However, ISTM that the imposition of the ashes is a public liturgical act of the Church, not merely a private expression of personal piety. Therefore, Jesus' words are not immediately relevant. We do the public liturgical work of the Church because tradition dictates it, full stop. If others believe we are prideful because we wear ashes on our head or pray the Office or go to Mass, so be it.

    However, the imposition of ashes does not confer grace — it is not a sacrament. If one found one's own private motives in wearing the ashes to be so suspect that pride might be overwhelming legitimate piety, I feel like it would be an acceptable way to avoid the near occasion of sin to wash them off. But I would hope that the Church's work of forming its people would make this unnecessary for all but a few, no?

  17. Anonymous7:13 AM

    I have to disagree. Perhaps since you live in the metro-plex as well as I do, there are many places that you can go that you won't see anyone with ashes on the forehead. I can't tell you the number of times that it is an ideal ice-breaker for me, be it the grocery store, library, gas station, or primary public grade school.

    It's also nice to see other Catholics which you only know as someone to say hi to when you walk the dog and find out that their Catholic.

    My only bad experience is with a former SBC(as in doesn't believe anymore)individual at work who point blank advised me that he'd love to wipe those ashes off my head. But that's just a occasion for prayer.

    I'd recommend it for everyone. I don't relate it at all to the Gospel passage, since "bragging" about receiving ashes on Ash WEdnesday is like shouting out that you went to the bathroom today. Big deal.

  18. Two cents' worth from another Dallas Catholic: I understood long ago -- and I am an old guy, so it was a REALLY long time ago -- that after you leave the church on Ash Wednesday, you should remove the ashes from your forehead. It's not something in the water, and I didn't get that from Msgr. Joseph (who is a wonderful priest, by the way). I don't remember if a priest told us that, or if it was the nuns, but that was the rule of the day in our 1950's parish.

    If our lives are not a testament to our faith, wearing ashes publicly one day a year isn't going to make up for the other 364 days, and in fact may just create scandal (as in, who do you think you're fooling?).

    For myself, my ashes are off before I leave the church parking lot. Wear *your* ashes as long as you like. Our immortal souls do not depend on whether we keep a smudge on your forehead all day -- but maybe those who do should be sure about why they are doing it (it wouldn't be to call attention to yourself, would it?).

  19. I live in a big, formerly anti-Catholic, multicultural Canadian city. Hindus put ashes and henna, etc., on their foreheads. Muslim women cover their foreheads. Sports fans cover their entire faces with paint. Catholics, one more religious group in the multicultural mix, wear ashes on their foreheads one day a year and the grandchildren of staunch Protestants don't know enough to twit us for it. In fact, it's doubtful anyone who isn't a Catholic knows that we're fasting. I sat in an Indian vegetarian restaurant for my one "meal" on Ash Wednesday, and the waiter never turned a hair at the big black smudge on my head. And when I saw two other Catholics in my bus station with black crosses on their heads, I felt thrilled. Ash Wednesday is the one day Catholics are "a visible religious minority" and it is a gift to be able to recognize each other in public, for once. It is also a gift for a white person like myself to know--for a day--what it is like to have a "different" face.

    I see no reason to wash off my ashes. It is a witness to the faith and yet also a way of being in solidarity with other religious minorities. Maybe priests and nuns don't mind having become invisible in public, but many laypeople welcome making the Church visible in the world.

  20. I've only just fallen over this discussion, but I blogged on it like this:
    And so many people here saw an ash cross as being a sign of being a Roman Catholic!
    Where do you people live?
    Do you hear Lutherans dividing the world into Lutheran and non-Lutheran? Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian?

  21. Anonymous7:31 AM

    It's not just Roman - at least in Poland and Lichtenstein the ashes are sprinkled on people's heads.