Here’s Why I Don’t Wipe Off the Ashes

Yes, we will return to dust — but then God will reshape us into new, more perfect beings in the next life.

A priest shows his hand covered with ash after Mass as part of the Ash Wednesday on Feb. 22, 2023 in Guadalajara, Mexico.
A priest shows his hand covered with ash after Mass as part of the Ash Wednesday on Feb. 22, 2023 in Guadalajara, Mexico. (photo: Leonardo Alvarez Hernandez / Getty Images)

Many years ago, I attended an Ash Wednesday service in an Anglican church in Toronto. From what I remember it was much like a Catholic Ash Wednesday service, though my memory may be flawed.

There was one difference that I remember clearly.

When the service was over the Anglican minister asked us to wipe the ashes off our forehead as we left the church. There were even wet wipes to scrub the black smudge off our foreheads.

The reason: so as not to appear proud when we made our way out into the greater world.

I was confused about what he meant by “proud.” Maybe he meant not “showing off.” Though in a country in which religion is often mocked if not dismissed outright, I’m not sure anyone in the secular world of Toronto would be envious of our black marks.

Another reason popped into my mind, though one I later thought was probably far-fetched: to not upset anyone who might ask what the ashes signify. Maybe quoting Genesis — “For you are dust and to dust you shall return” — might remind someone of a nervous nature that this life does not go on forever.

I’m a Catholic now and after every Ash Wednesday for the past 15 years I’ve left the ashes on my forehead for the entire day. I want people to look at me so I can take the opportunity to tell them what it means — in other words, to evangelize.

In doing so I would think of what I read years ago in the Catholic Herald. It quoted Pope Francis on the meaning of Lent: “It comes providentially to reawaken us, to shake us from our lethargy.”

That can be read in several ways, but I think Francis meant to not be afraid to proclaim our Catholic faith in the public square. Our faith grew because others in our history have dared to testify. Some of those who did died in a horrible way for their efforts.

If on this Wednesday I’m asked what the ashes mean, I’ll simply say, at first, that it’s in honor of the start of Lent. What’s Lent? It’s a period of sacrifice that leads up to Christ's death and then glorious resurrection.

At this point, I’ll likely get some smirks or questioning looks as in, “You can’t be serious.”

Then I’ll ask, what do you believe in? The response will likely be something about individual freedom and not being told what to do by some priest or minister. To be free to have sex when I want to with who I want. That freedom includes the right to abortion, the right to end one’s life through legalized euthanasia, and to allow young people to change their sex because it should be their choice.

I would respond that I too am free. I chose to be Catholic. No one forced me. And once I became a Catholic a terrible weight fell off my shoulders. I’m free to live a life without the burden of sin. I’m free to honor life at every stage. And I believe that killing people because they are sick is awful because it’s the solution of beasts and not compassionate people. I believe that there is more to our life than this life on Earth. I believe in eternity.

I also believe what we do in this life will be judged. 

As a Catholic, I finally understood that the God who created me also sustains me and all else that lives.

Then if the person is still listening, and that’s a long shot, I will say that we do return to dust, but that God reshapes us into new, more perfect beings in the next life.

I would once again quote Francis from a homily he gave four years ago:

Ashes are thus a reminder of the direction of our existence: a passage from dust to life. We are dust, earth and clay, but if we allow ourselves to be shaped by the hands of God, we become something wondrous. More often than not, though, especially at times of difficulty and loneliness, we only see our dust! But the Lord encourages us: in his eyes, our littleness is of infinite value. So let us take heart: we were born to be loved; we were born to be children of God.

What a wonderful thing to be loved.