Ashes and Seminarians
Updated: Mar 20, 2019
This year was the first time in my priesthood I wasn't in a parish for Ash Wednesday. It's a unique day in the life of the Church: all the bustle of Christmas and Easter with none of the food! As a priest, I was tasked with taking ashes and signing the foreheads of the people of God with the sign of the cross, reminding them that they are dust and to dust they shall return. You do anything over and over again, even a liturgical action like giving out ashes, and you start to fall into a rote repetition. What saved me from turning into an ash dispensing robot was the evident faith in the faces before me. I saw all the regulars, of course: the daily Mass goers, the school families, the members of the parish council, the reliable liturgical volunteers. But I was also struck by how many faces I didn't recognize. People who I hadn't remembered seeing before came into the church in a rush, eager to get some dirt slapped on their forehead. Whatever their record for Sunday Mass attendance, people wore that visible sign of faith with pride, and adjusted their Wednesday schedule to make sure they got it.
Things are different at the seminary. For starters, I counted myself lucky when the one other priest in the parish stuck around to help distribute ashes for my Mass. Here in Mundelein, there were twelve priests at Mass (a very apostolic number). With so many priests running around, for the first time in five years I didn't have to fret over the quality of my ash cross. I was able to sit and pray over what those ashes meant for me this Lent, to ponder my dusty fate. I haven't known such a spiritual luxury since I became a priest!
I remained in that (admittedly) self-absorbed state of mind for most of the rest of the Mass. It happened that while I wasn't needed to help distribute ashes, I did end up distributing the Precious Blood for Communion. For the first time I looked out at the faces of the seminarians and I felt a thrill of shock run through me. I was struck by the sight of all those men wearing the sign of the cross drawn in ashes on their foreheads. Why was I shocked by that? I'm still not sure. Perhaps I was a little too far inside my own head that I had forgetten that other people had received ashes too. There was something more to it than that, though. There was a strangeness to the sight of those black crosses on row after row of heads. It seemed to me I was looking at branded men, men on whom the fire of the Spirit had descended to scorch the mark of the cross on their brows. It was the shock of seeing Christians, which is also always the shock of seeing Christ.
The external sign of the cross made of ashes did its job as a small-s sacramental: it revealed in visible signs an invisible reality. Of course those seminarians were all branded by the fire of the Spirit. Every Christian is. The ashes just reminded me of something I should have remembered. Yes, the ashes reminded me of my own mortality and my need for God's saving grace. But they also reminded me that everyone in the chapel with me was in the same boat. As we start the season of Lent, it's good to be confronted not only with my face covered in ashes but with the fact that there are others who share the same hope in the Resurrection, who cling to that hope enough to be willing to be seen in public with dirt on their foreheads. It's shocking to realize you're not alone.