What’s that on your forehead?

Every year, those of us who attend certain Christian churches face a dilemma on this day: Wear our ashes or wash them off?

I have no idea what percentage of the Christian population attends services on Ash Wednesday, nor how many churches still mark congregants’ foreheads with ashes. But mine does, and every year I see people in the office or the skyway with a cross smudged on their brow. Sometimes I do a double take, even though I know what the smudge signifies.

I’ll get mine in the evening, and I won’t have to consider whether I want to scrub off the ashes before going out in public unless I stop at the grocery store on the way home. I did stop last evening, and was pleased to find that the bakery section was selling hot cross buns. At the checkout, the young man bagging my groceries stopped and said, “What are these?”

“Hot cross buns,” I replied. “You can only get ’em during Lent.”

“What’s Lent?” he asked.

So I explained about Lent. If I run into the same young man tonight, I’ll have some more explaining to do. Unless I sidestep the question by ducking into the washroom on my way out of church.

I looked up the question on the Internet, and found a variety of opinions, of course. One Catholic blogger wrote that it’s good to keep the ashes on your face, as long as you’re not doing it to draw attention to yourself. It’s hard to see how you can avoid drawing attention to yourself, with ashes on your face.

What would Stephen Colbert do? Here’s a clip from his Ash Wednesday show last year (mild language alert).

— Eric Ringham

  • BJ

    2 years ago I was in DC on ash Wednesday – I was shocked at the amount of ashen foreheads (in non tourist areas). I would guess 50-70% of people on street.

  • Chuck

    My church, an ELCA Lutheran outfit, does ashes every year. I’ve gone out in public afterwards and always forget they are there until I get home and see them in a mirror. I guess people do give you a second glance and does make me wonder how many people are actually aware of their meaning. I enjoyed your story, Eric, about telling the young guy about Lent. Who knows where, if anywhere, that might lead him, but at least it’s a low-key, low-pressure opportunity to potentially pique someone’s interest.