Why is Ash Wednesday “cool”?

Aaron Lambert

We’ve all seen it; someone walks into a restaurant, or a bank, or the grocery store with a smudge of ashes in the shape of a cross on his forehead, and he is immediately met with stares of confusion, and possibly an awkward smile.

Of course, most Catholics are well aware what the ashes mean: it’s Ash Wednesday, and the penitential season of Lent has begun.

While the pews of churches are becoming less and less full at Sunday Mass across the board, something interesting happens on Ash Wednesday—Mass attendance spikes.

Even those who don’t attend church regularly, and perhaps don’t even practice their faith, clamor at the chance to get burnt palm leaves smeared across their heads as the priest exhorts them to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. So what makes Ash Wednesday so cool?

Father Anthony Arinello serves as a chaplain at Colorado School of Mines. It’s a yearly tradition for his ministry to reserve a spot outside of the student center on Ash Wednesday and offer ashes to passersby. In total, he estimates that he and his student leaders bless and give ashes to 500-600 people each year.

“There’s something about the ashes that calls upon our humanity.”

“It’s certainly a huge outreach for us,” Father Arinello told Denver Catholic. “[People] know they can get ashes all day.” 

Despite the fact that he doesn’t typically say daily Mass on campus, he says two Masses that evening to accommodate the influx of ash-seekers: “Surprisingly, even many who’ve already received ashes and who aren’t regular Mass goers still come for Mass.”

Though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Ash Wednesday draws so many participants, Father Arinello thinks that the smudges of ashes remind people of their own humanity and our inherent desire for the divine – for God.

“There’s something about the simplicity of admitting that we need God that … a lot of people feel solidarity with,” he explained. “There’s something of a wonder about it because you’re marking yourself with the cross. Maybe it’s the humility of it; not just receiving the ashes, but receiving the little prayer we do as people receive ashes.

“There’s something about the ashes that calls upon our humanity.”

In the public eye

Greg Nieto, a parishioner of St. Cajetan’s in Denver, wears his ashes on air during his work as a reporter for FOX 3 and Channel 2. He told Denver Catholic that “it’s an awesome experience to be a part of every year.”

What he likes about Ash Wednesday is the sense of “solidarity” he feels with other Catholics: “It seems like every Ash Wednesday I’m working a different schedule so I see different slices of the population at a different Church, and it’s kind of cool in that sense.”

Nieto noted that he’s always worn ashes without much fanfare, or negative feedback from coworkers or his bosses, but he does get some “quizzical” looks and questions several times a day on Ash Wednesday.

“I’m actually surprised,” he remarked, “and I know there are a lot of non-Catholics out there, but I’m actually surprised when people don’t know the symbolism” Nieto says that wearing his ashes is in part an acknowledgement of his faith, and that he views questions about his ashes as an opportunity to spread knowledge about what he believes.

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Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 1 this year, marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“With the news business, on any given day you never know up until literally the minute you step foot in the news room where you are going to be, or what story you are going to cover, or what people you are going to come across,” he explained. “It is always one of those unknowns, where is my journey going to take me today. …. On Ash Wednesday, when you are carrying around that symbol, it makes it even cooler, especially in this profession.”

When asked if he’ll be wearing his ashes this year, he said: “I’m moving back to nights, so they will be there on both Channel 2 and on Fox.”

“Nothing like it”

According to Kevin Cotter, who serves the Fellowship of Catholic University Students as the senior director of curriculum, college kids love Ash Wednesday.

“There’s nothing like Ash Wednesday [for college students],” Cotter told Denver Catholic. “You can’t replace it in our secular world, there’s not another movement of distinct ritual … it gives them a moment that’s unique and really important … it’s tangible and it’s real. 

“I think millennials love authenticity and things that are real, and Ash Wednesday gives them that.”

But according to Cotter, more than the ashes, Ash Wednesday is a day to take a moment to reflect on a deeper level: “No matter who you are, you know some part of your life needs transformation. You think, ‘Boy, I’m not the person I want to be.’ There’s something deep inside us that says, there’s something that needs to change.”

“Ashes are important,” he added, “but in our world today, it’s important to consider what those ashes mean, instead of a drive-through [mentality].”

“I think millennials love authenticity and things that are real, and Ash Wednesday gives them that.”

Cotter also noted that Ash Wednesday is also a day of fasting and abstinence, which means that Catholics over the age of 14 are obligated to give up meat and to limit themselves to only two meals during the day. And, it initiates Lent, a penitential season in which Catholics deepen their prayer, give alms and offer up specific sacrifices.

“But it’s not just about what I want to do, it’s about why,” he said. “It can be easy to give up something like chocolate, but the real reason behind it is to be less selfish, or to be less of me and more of Jesus, and Lent allows the space to do that … it’s about going beyond that and asking why am I doing it.”

Therese Aaker and Karna Swanson contributed to this report.

COMING UP: The art of ash making

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Making ashes isn’t as easy you might think.

“There is quite an art to it,” according to Mike Gerken, who co-owns Gerken’s Religious Supplies with his brother.

“To get the good ash, you can’t just burn them. You have to let them smolder with no oxygen, and that’s where it gets the real charcoal black.”

Gerken’s Religious Supplies sells ashes to hundreds of parishes in Colorado and beyond, as does John Erger Co, a religious supply company in Lakewood. Both use Palm Gardens in Alamo, Texas, as their supplier for Ash Wednesday ashes, as well as for palms for Palm Sunday.

Gerken said that he’s seen ashes from other suppliers that are more of a gray, and not as fine but that they prefer the ashes from Palm Gardens, with whom they have a 50-year relationship.

“The ones we get from Palm Gardens are almost like a talc, like a baby powder, and they stick really good,” he said.

Grey works, too

When it comes to do-it-yourself palm burning, John Miller, the director of the liturgy office for the Archdiocese of Denver, knows a thing or two. He was tasked with the job of burning about 100 palms a year for the Cathedral of Saints Simon and Jude in Phoenix, Az.

“I’ve always just used the gray ash,” he admitted.

“We would basically take all of the leftover palms, put them in an outdoor fire pit you buy at Lowe’s, and from there we would just scrape out the bits and chunks of what didn’t burn,” he explained. “It was a very fine, gray ash.”

He said the process worked for what he needed, which was enough ashes for about 2,500 people.

“It was a lot of fun,” he added. “But, it was a mess.”