Monday, February 23, 2015


I don't remember the last time I failed to get ashes on Ash Wednesday. This year, I got them at St. John the Evangelist on 13th Street in downtown Philly. I never go there for any other reason, but their ashes operation is a very streamlined, in-and-out affair designed for working people who don't have time for an hour-long mass in the middle of the work week. You walk in, light a candle if you want, say a prayer, and then the priest (who is usually a guy from Lesotho or Manila or Lima) comes out and conducts a five-minute service. Then two or three helpers emerge from behind the altar and everybody in the joint gets ashes.

The priest or helper always says something as he (or she) applies the smudge. In the Middle Ages, it was usually “Memento mori,” which means “Remember death.” Bit of a buzz-kill, of course, but that's what Ash Wednesday is about. It's the beginning of Lent, which is the last forty days (actually forty-five) of Christ's life, so a remembrance of mortality is a big part of the story.

The ritual sounds grim, but in fact, it's not. When you start your day with a reminder, in no uncertain terms, that your end is nigh, you walk out of church with a need to affirm life and the vital principle and to, in the words of the late Warren Zevon, “Enjoy every sandwich.” That's what always happens to me, in any case. Getting ashes is supposed to be the most depressing thing that happens to you that day, so that afterwards you walk around smiling and cheerful and you pat little kids on the head.

Except it's not the Middle Ages anymore. For the past ten years or so, the homily I've been given with my ashes has been “Turn away from sin and read the Gospels.” Wimpy stuff. Pitiful, really. If there were Catholic restaurants that served fortune cookies, it's what you would get in a Catholic fortune cookie. But that's modern feel-good Catholicism for you. It's a big reason there aren't as many Catholics as there used to be, at least in the U.S.

But this Wednesday, I got lucky. I approached one of the helpers and as she loaded up her thumb with a double shot of the blackest, she looked me right in the eye and said, “Remember---you are dust and to dust you will return.” And she said it like she meant it.


In a way, getting ashes these days is more fun than it used to be. When I was a kid, it seemed like most of the foreheads you saw on Ash Wednesday had a nice black smudge on them. Those were the days in Philly when everyone knew one or more working-class Catholic families with six kids, all of whom went to parochial school. My father, who practiced law in the 50's and 60's, once told me about running into a lawyer named Jacob Goldstein on Ash Wednesday and being surprised to see ashes on Jacob's noggin.

Jake,” he asked him, “did you convert?”

No, Stan, but I've got a jury trial today.” Expecting seven or eight Catholics on the jury, Jacob was taking no chances. Back then, getting ashes in Philly was no big deal. Even Jews had them---well, a few Jews anyway.

Today, however, ash-wearers are sufficiently rare that I usually get told by someone, seriously, that I have some dirt on my head and I should wash it off. I see people looking at me, puzzled, and then realizing, “That's right. Yesterday was Mardi Gras.” I like it much better this way. Before, I was just another smudge in the crowd; now I'm slightly exotic and even somewhat annoying. Being honest now, one reason I never miss a year is that I know there's a certain number of cranky atheists who look at me and get pissed off.

After church, I went to my job at Target, where I typically see hundreds of people during an eight-hour shift. Only ten or twelve (all women) had ashes, but because ash-wearers are now so rare, a guild mentality has developed in places like Philly where those of us who sport the smudge are a distinct minority. You notice each other. You make eye contact. “Oh, yeah,” you think, “we cool.” At one point, I was bending over and arranging some bread on a shelf so the customer who came up couldn't see my head until she spoke to me. I looked up and there, two feet away, was a forehead just like mine. She was startled. “Dominus vobiscum,” I told her, and made the sign of the cross. It was a second or two before she remembered she wanted to know where we keep the cream cheese.

The ashes even provide an introduction. I never speak about anything personal with customers unless they initiate it, but I did on Ash Wednesday, telling several of the young ladies about how I scored big at St. John's that morning. All were suitably impressed. They were young enough that some had never heard anything but the turn-away-from-sin, fortune-cookie stuff.

My favorite Ash Wednesday experience occurred in St. Louis (not an especially papist burg), about twenty-five years ago. I was there on business, had flown in that morning, and was stuck in a law office until early afternoon when we broke for lunch.

Early that morning I had ascertained there was a cathedral downtown, so as soon as I was released from the high-rise where I had spent the morning, I hauled ass about ten blocks to the church, sailed through the (one) open door and found, in an enormous structure with a nave straining up to heaven itself---nobody. An open Catholic church downtown in a major American city always has some poor bastard in one of the pews, praying for something-or-other, but this one, in St. Louis MO on Ash Wednesday afternoon, had nobody but me. I approached the altar, genuflected (ask a Catholic what that means), and sat myself down in the front row. There was only so much time I could spend there. I only had an hour for lunch.

Five minutes passed.

Then, the door just behind the pulpit opened slightly and a woman peeked out, saw me, and shut the door. I thought about this for a minute, then advanced into what is called (I think) the presbytery, where the mass is done, and knocked on the door. Thirty seconds passed and the door was opened by the same woman. I introduced myself, explained my mission, and asked if there were some way to get my ashes.

That was all over an hour ago,” she said, and gave me a long look. “OK, I'll see.” And the door closed.

Time passed. Minutes. Was I being so terribly unreasonable? It's Ash Wednesday, it's only about one o'clock, and this is the big church in downtown St. Louis. I mean, what am I---a burglar?

Finally, the door flew open and a tiny man, shrunken with age, looked up at me. He had to be 80 years old and though he was wearing the backward collar, he seemed otherwise disheveled, as if roughly awakened, recently.

Ashes?” he said. “You want ashes?”

I explained my quest, apologizing all the while. But now I felt terrible because the situation was suddenly rather obvious. This venerable geezer had been up since 4 am on Ash Wednesday duty, had planted smudges on hundreds of heads and done two or three masses, and finally he had retired to the rectory for his soft-boiled egg and a dry martini, and had fallen asleep in front of “The Price Is Right.” And then I came along.

Fine,” he said, shutting me up. “Wait here.” He went back inside and reappeared a minute later with a dish of black ash. Loading up, and with a flick of his wrist, he punched me in the head with his thumb and smeared the results across a wide swath. “Turn away from Satan,” he told me, “and read yer Gospels. OK???” An instant later, he was gone and the door was shut in my face. In the silent, empty cathedral, the slam of the door made me shiver. It was the sound of doom itself.