By Sister Sallie Latkovich
When I was in college at Cleveland State University, I worked part time in the CYO Office of the Diocese of Cleveland. On Ash Wednesday, I went to the Cathedral for Mass at noon. The place was packed! While Mass was being celebrated, people were lined up in the side aisles to get ashes. It came time for Communion, and the businessman in front of me in line appeared before the priest who offered the Body of Christ. The businessman said: “I’m not here for THAT, where are the ashes?” I was just shocked.
Then, when I was a Pastoral Associate in a parish, the phones rang continuously asking when ashes were being given. One of the priests on our team laughingly suggested we put in a drive through window to give ashes.
Another time, when I was at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, I wasn’t able to be present for the prayer and giving of ashes. I stopped in the sacristy of the chapel, to find another faculty member preparing the little bowls of ashes. I asked to receive them. He paused in silence, blessed the ashes, and signed my forehead with the words: Repent and believe in the Gospel. This holy moment returns to my mind each Ash Wednesday, and my understanding and appreciation of this ritual grows deeper.
As the Catechumens, or those who are converting to Catholicism, begin this Lenten time of purification, as they prepare for the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil, we who have been baptized enter into a time of purification as well: recalling our Baptism, and seeking to renew our commitment. We are marked with ashes as a sign of our intent to enter into this process.
Later in the Lenten season, the Catechumens experience three scrutinies, or special rites, involving self reflection on sin and the saving grace of Christ. We too enter into these reflections as individuals, communities, and as society. Let us ask ourselves the following questions based upon scripture:
- John 4:5-42
How are we the Samaritan woman at the well? How are we offered living water, and thus new and true life?
- John 9:1-41
How might we be the man born blind, and to what are we blinded? How are we offered new sight and new vision, leading to a new and deeper belief in Christ? (
- John 11:1-45
Like Lazarus, what is dead in our lives? How are we entombed? What does the voice of Jesus sound like, calling us by name to new life?
Being signed with ashes on Ash Wednesday is much more than a once a year ritual that is rote. It is rich in meaning, and marks our annual process of purification and renewal of our baptismal gift. I wish you a spirit-filled and blessed Lenten journey and Easter season.
About the Author
After nine years at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Sister Sallie Latkovich was elected to and currently serves on the Leadership Team of the Congregation of St. Joseph.