Why do Catholics walk around with smudges on their foreheads once a year? Is it a case of misapplied eye-shadow? Is it National Pelt a Catholic Wednesday when Rome-haters throw lumps of coal at hapless Catholics? Or is it just another example of silly Catholic ritual? Silly Catholics, don’t they know ashes are for dead people?

For those who don’t know—unfortunately this includes the smudged as well as the un-smudged—ashes represent repentance (see 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1-3, Job 42:6, and Jeremiah 6:26). They’re an apt symbol, a reminder that “thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” (Genesis 3:19) Ashes represent death too. But Catholics don’t celebrate death. We celebrate death’s relationship with Christ, and therefore, with his cross. And since the cross is the doorway to the resurrection, Ash Wednesday death doesn’t involve that which we all fear…that looming specter of uncertainty, that boogeyman crisis that the forlorn and the self-forsaken dread. At Ash Wednesday death is not about darkness, but the overwhelming promise of light.

A day or so later, when the smudge wears away or I take a shower (whichever comes first), I try not to forget that the symbol is gone but the reality remains. For 40 days, Catholics fast, reflect and repent as they await the Easter morn. In the process, a truly repentant Lenten soul can sever invisible chains. As St.John of the Cross said, a bird tied down with even the thinnest thread is still tied down. And, unlike St. John’s bird, we’re tied down by more than threads. We’re tied to audiovisual cables, diamond necklaces, and Louis Vuitton purse straps. Lent is all about cutting free from these things, about dying for the sake of living.

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