Sinners with Ashes

Joe Biden with ashes on his forehead. The image seems shocking to many Catholics. Disturbing. Many worry about the message it sends to Catholics that you can be a pro-abortion rights and same-sex marriage supporting and still a public Catholic in good standing.

And there's something to it, especially nowadays when the message about the sacredness of life is so obfuscated. But I also must acknowledge that I too am a sinner with ashes. I bet there's probably some people who know me who see me with ashes and scoff.

One of the ways Catholics refer to themselves is "practicing" Catholics. I'm always a little wary of those who describe themselves as "devout." I think you should probably let other people use that word about you. I prefer to call myself a "struggling Catholic." It's not that I'm struggling with the Church so much as I'm struggling with living up to the Church's teachings.

There's something about Ash Wednesday that brings people back to Church. So many people who go to Church on Christmas and Easter go to Mass to receive ashes. I honestly don't know why. But maybe it's simply seeing others with ashes. Maybe it's seeing an outward sign of faith that reminds them of who they are, who they want to be. It calls them to look up from their lives and reminds them that this life does not go on forever and to consider bigger things.

I spoke with a woman last night who saw my kids and I out and about. She saw all of us with ashes and she struck up a conversation. She told me she was raised Catholic but her husband wasn't Catholic so she converted to "general Christianity" as she called it. She thought it was important that the entire family be raised in the same faith and as her husband was immovable she converted. But she said, now that the children are getting older she was thinking about returning to the Catholic Church. "In my heart I'm still a Catholic," she said.

There is something about ashes. It reminds people to look up from their lives and consider who they are and who they want to be. It reminds them that this does not go on forever. It reminds them that "Man is dust, and unto dust you shall return." But by receiving ashes you don't only remind yourself, you may remind others.

So I don't scoff at sinners with ashes anymore. I am one. And maybe God can make some good come from a terrible sinner like me.



  1. Father put in our Sunday bulletin that ashes were available yesterday to any sinner ~ whether they're Catholic or not and whether they're in good standing or not. If anyone needs ashes, it's the Catholic who publicly defies the teachings of the Church. Unfortunately, the visible message then becomes that the Catholic-in-name-only has been to Mass and probably has received communion. What to do, what to do???

  2. I hate the whole "Catholic-in-name-only" epithet. It is frustrating to see people - most prominently politicians - wrap themselves in Catholicism, with all of the moral capital that comes with it, only to ignore Church teaching. I get that.

    But the "name" in "Catholic-in-name-only" is the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. To suggest that the mark on one's soul left there by Baptism into Christ is "only" something of little consequence is to do a great disrespect to the power and importance of the Sacrament.

    We are all imperfect Catholics. Yes - probably some more than others. But who can tell where the boundary lies between God's Grace and what lies beyond? I sure can't. We are all called to continual conversion. And the only hope we have is the Name into which we are all joined.

  3. Apologize for the length of this, but a very pertinent Gospel with commentary from Origen on this subject.

    So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests. And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen.
    (Mat 22:10-14)

    Commentary from Origen (Sunday Sermons of the Church Fathers, Vol 4, excerpts from pp 209-217):
    Since they had to call both bad and good, not however that the bad were to remain bad, but so that taking off and casting aside the garments unfitting the wedding, they should put on wedding garments, that is, the bowels of mercy, benignity, humility, modesty, patience (Col. 12): for these are wedding garments; because of this then the king goes in to see the guests before the dinner; the beeves, namely, the slain fatlings and all that was made ready is put before them, so that He may note carefully those who have on a wedding garment, and seeing it rejoice, and may pronounce sentence on those who are without one. Going in therefore He finds one of those who were called, and came in answer to the call, but who had not changed his manner of life and neither had he put on a wedding garment, and he said to him: Friend, how camest thou in hither not having on a wedding garment? Then since he was a sinner, and not renewed and had not put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and being without any ground of excuse, he is silent. And so it is written: But he was silent. Nor is it enough that he is sent forth from the wedding feast who had proved unworthy of his invitation; the king's jailers must also bind fast the wickedness which had not suffered him to do what he should have done, and the power of action he had not used to do good. Not alone is he cast forth from the wedding, he is also condemned to the place that is a stranger to all light, where there is a darkness deeper than darkness, and called exterior darkness. And if there should be one of us, coming at the invitation of the king to the wedding of his son, and should he appear to have obeyed the call and to have come with those who were called, but has not put on the wedding garment of which we have been speaking, he shall suffer these things and, bound hand and foot, shall be thrust out into exterior darkness, there, according to the words: Woe to ye that now laugh: for you shall mourn and weep (Lk. vi. 25); to weep with those who have committed sins deserving of mourning and weeping. They shall weep, mourning their own miseries. Then that the Word might show us the fear and trembling, the sadness, the sorrow and pain in which they shall be who have not put on a wedding garment, He says: There shall be weeping, and not alone weeping, but gnashing of teeth. And that He may teach us that though many are called, not all, but only a few of these, have come, He brings the whole parable to an end with the words: For many are called, but few are chosen.

  4. I think the gist of it, is a Matt says, ashes mean "I am a sinner" although some think it means, "Hey look at me, I'm a good Catholic". To some, ashes mean no more than bringing the Sunday Bulletin home to prove they were at Mass. To others, they are a reminder of the call to repentance and conversion. Fortunately, God can see into hearts and motives. So I say - Let anyone who wants ashes, have ashes. In the end, God will sort us all out.

  5. Out of charity, I'm going to continue to offer up those like joe.
    They do make the burden heavier for the innocent to bear. To get salvation, you not only have to ask for it, but, you also must have the "intention" of amending your life. Some of us do have to work on it more than others!

  6. I've found the ashes often lead to conversations with former/lost/wounded/hurting Catholics. It is always an interesting experience. It most often comes to 1) they are separated from the Church for any number of reasons 2) the ashes spark "something" and they want to talk 3) more often or not they ask if it would be "all right" for them to go back. 4) I usually tell them "what are you waiting for, Christ still loves you go home."

    I don't know if they always go, but, it is something that they just ask. It isn't always that way, but I always try to be understanding and I make sure I tell them where they can go to get the ashes (usually where I've just came from). It is humbling to watch the call the Holy Spirit exerts through us. It sure isn't me.

    God's peace to you all.


Post a Comment