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An act of cleaning up our own house in the ashes of Ash Wednesday

By Judy Knotts
Special to the American-Statesman
The Rev. Cathy Stone of First United Methodist Church of Austin places ashes on the forehead of McKenzie Edwards in the parking lot of the church on Ash Wednesday in 2020.

Why do they do it? Why do they come to church? Why do they want ashes on their foreheads?

Why do they wait in line for their turn to have someone — a priest, a deacon, a minister, an authorized lay person — gently brush aside their bangs, lift their curls, and make a sign of the cross on their foreheads with ashes while saying: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Why do they happily roll down a car window at a red light where ashes are being distributed and not think this strange?

Why are they not self-conscious having a black cross or more often a dark smudge on their foreheads as they go about their day in school, at work, in the neighborhood? Is it a badge of courage? A membership mark? A topic for discussion?

It’s often been reported that church attendance is higher on Ash Wednesday than on Sundays. (This year Ash Wednesday is March 2.) Astonishing, truly, since this ritual is not considered essential theology or practice in Christian faith communities. With this social/spiritual event, we need to take note. What is this phenomenon telling us?

Some explanations might be — I believe. Or, I used to believe. Or, maybe, I can believe. Or, perhaps, more compelling, I want to believe and belong. As a pragmatic man living on the streets said when I offered him a blessing and some ashes —“It can’t hurt.” On a deeper level, for some, it could be — I hear these words, reminding me that I will die and become ashes.

Kathleen Norris, an American writer of poetry and essays, tells a marvelous tale called “My Messy House" in "Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter." She was occasionally a writer-in-residence at elementary schools. One time, she chose to read psalms to the children, “for their emotional directness” she said, “before having the students write their own psalms. “

“One little boy wrote a poem called ‘The Monster Who Was Sorry.’ He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs and then wreck his room, and finally the whole town. The poem concludes: ‘Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.'”

Being distressed. Feeling angry. Imagining. Reflecting. Repenting. All this in the space of one little poem, by one little boy. Can I? Can we do as much? Why is it so hard to admit our faults — things we do or don’t do and things we imagine doing as our young poet did?

Judy Knotts is a parishioner of St. John Neumann Catholic Church and former head of St. Gabriel's Catholic School and St. Michael's Catholic Academy. Her newest book, "You Are My Brother," is a collection of past American-Statesman faith columns.

Church people, theologians and practitioners, distinguish immoral acts as sins of commission and sins of omission. Sins of commission leap out at us like theft, assault, murder. Most pat ourselves on the back and say, “That’s not me, I would never do that. I’m a good person, really.” We try to convince oneself and others.

Sins of omission often escape our purview. They are subtle, non-entities, things undone that should have been done. Because it’s hard to wrap our arms around these inhuman, unkind, everyday acts, we think we are scot-free and innocent of any wrongdoing.

Jim Harrington administers the imposition of ashes to Amy Martinez in the parking lot of Fiesta Mart Supermarket company on Ash Wednesday in 2019.

The range of these behaviors is wide and deep. It could be as broad as not committing to a critical social justice issue with feet in, vote in. It could be as narrow and common as not caring for older or ill family members. It could be as pervasive as Me First in all situations, ignoring others’ needs.

Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is the beginning of a six week period of penitence before Easter for the Christian Church. It is a time of self-examination, looking at our sins against God and others.

Because participation in the ritual of ashes is not required for Christians and yet, amazingly, all sorts of people partake, there is reason for hope. Could it be that making the decision on our own to get ashes, means an initial tentative step, a sort of purposeful self-symbol — I’m cleaning my messy house, sweeping up crumbs, wiping away stickiness, taking out trash, and polishing windows and floors. Putting everything in my life in order.

Judy Knotts is a parishioner of St. John Neumann Catholic Church and former head of St. Gabriel's Catholic School and St. Michael's Catholic Academy. Her newest book, "You Are My Brother," is a collection of past American-Statesman faith columns.