Ashes are a rich Christian tradition
The Rev. Susan Rothenberg of Emsworth United Presbyterian Church mixes palm ashes with a little olive oil for use today on Ash Wednesday.
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When he lived in Colorado, Paul Crawford rarely saw others in public with an Ash Wednesday cross smeared on their foreheads.
In the 1990s he and his wife moved to Wisconsin, where Catholics were more observant, but not to the extent he has seen as an associate professor of history at California University of Pennsylvania.
"I've been impressed at the number of students and faculty alike who attend the on-campus Catholic Ash Wednesday service every year," he said.
"One still gets the occasional student who will say quizzically, 'You have something on your forehead.' But most people know what it is, even if they haven't got ashes themselves."
Greater Pittsburgh is known for droves of people sporting ashes on the first day of Lent. It's because of a large Catholic population and a growing number of Protestants who use the ritual. Lines stretch around the block with people waiting to receive ashes at St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Church, Downtown.
Ashes are a sign of repentance, humility and renewal, said the Rev. Warren Murrman, who teaches liturgy at Saint Vincent Seminary, Latrobe. The Bible says God created humans from dust, and "unto dust we shall return," he said.
Ashes on the face for mourning or repentance predates Christianity, Father Murrman said. The Bible says King David did so 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus. Today, when news clips show a funeral in the Arab world, it's common to see people who have smeared dirt on their faces.
In early Christianity anyone who had left the faith and wanted to return had to show public penance since they had committed public apostasy. They were required to have ashes on their foreheads throughout Lent.
In the 12th century, when the church wanted to emphasize that everyone had sinned and needed to repent, the practice of imposing ashes was revived. Ashes carry a deeper meaning of new life, Father Murrman said, pointing to the legend of the phoenix rising from its own ashes and the practice of burning fields to bring new growth.
"It's meant to be a very positive experience. This is a time of renewal," Father Murrman said.
Jim Hanna, an insurance broker from Peters, said "ashes fill me with gratitude."
He quoted the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who wrote that ashes "are not a sign of death, but a promise of life."
"I am reminded of the incomprehensible contrast of our short temporal years contrasted with eternity," Mr. Hanna said. "The ashes are a reminder that I am blessed to be a participant in a centuries-old tradition. ... That I am in communion with fellow Christians, that as a Christian I am called to be particular in a pluralistic society and that God's mercy knows no bounds."
As a child, he was less enthralled. His pastor was known for the huge crosses imposed on parishioners. Not wanting to attend school looking as if he'd been shoveling coal, "we always tried to convince our parents to take us to church on Ash Wednesday evening as opposed to before school in the morning," he said.
Putting ashes on foreheads is a bit of an art, which the Rev. Susan Rothenberg hopes to perfect in her first year of ministry. Ashes must be mixed with oil to keep them from flying off her fingers, said the pastor of Emsworth United Presbyterian Church.
"The thing that they don't teach you in seminary is how you do that," she said. "I found the directions on the Internet, on eHow."
Ashes were once rare in Presbyterian churches. She grew up in Uniontown watching Catholics get released from school in the middle of the day and return with ashes on their foreheads.
"This was the 1970s, and we all thought that was the coolest thing," she said.
She didn't encounter Presbyterian ashes until adulthood, at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill. The first year she didn't go forward. "It was just foreign to me," she said.
But she came to appreciate the theological reasons for imposing them.
"We remember how vulnerable and frail we are as human beings and how much we depend on God's mercy for our every breath," she said.
Ashes are part of a Catholic culture that transcends the church, said Mark Barrett, an attorney from Sewickley. "The rhythms of the Catholic calendar and of Catholic life are publicly apparent here. It fascinates me that you open up the newspaper and see notices for fish fries."
Many Pittsburgh Catholics who rarely attend Mass will go on Ash Wednesday. "Sometimes they're surprised to find out that it's not a Holy Day of Obligation," he said.
"Probably it's because of the public witness of the people who do this. After you have this smudge on your forehead, other people will remember the ashes and, in turn, go to get them."
Ashes can pose a spiritual dilemma, because Jesus told his followers to fast and pray in secret. Mr. Barrett has debated whether to receive them either after work or in the morning so that his co-workers and clients see them.
"You have to consider, are you receiving them as a personal act of devotion, to reflect on your own dependence on God and his mercy? Or is it a perverse form of pride where you are putting the ashes on and walking around ... in a way that draws attention to yourself?"
He opted for morning Mass.
"It's a balancing act where you have to realize that there is worth in public witness. It does start conversations," he said.
He benefits seeing Christmas-and-Easter Catholics with ashes.
"Knowing that the guy who goes to Mass every six months received ashes the same way I do is something positive for me to take away. There is always a danger of pride in matters of faith," he said. "Those who are observant have to remind themselves that, in the end, we are all in the same boat. We are all in need of God's grace and mercy, and we are all equal before him."
First Published February 22, 2012 12:00 am