Over the several middle years of my life, during which I still sometimes identified as Catholic, it was fairly common for me to be interrogated on the streets, in bars, at work, etc., by people who’d pull me aside to say, behind a cupped hand, “Dude, you got something on your forehead.”
It was like my fly was down and I was about to meet the Queen of England. In reality, it was just Ash Wednesday and a priest had smeared the burnt remnants of palm fronds on my forehead.
I grew up in East Syracuse, NY, and if you didn’t have a gray-black cross of ash on your forehead you weren’t anybody. Everyone was Catholic, unless you had inadvertently stumbled into the neighborhood. There were no such things as Muslims back then. Instead, we had “Moslems.” Or, more likely, Arabs who were Christian, like the Gabriels across the street, and their cousins the Kamaars, not to mention my half-Irish, half-Lebanese cousins a few miles away – among the best people I’ve ever known.
Now I see people with ash on their foreheads and I wonder how many of them are secretively advised to go look at themselves in mirrors so that they don’t walk around looking like Cinderella, or Bert in Mary Poppins. Most of the people who take the brunt of such ignorant man-on-the-street counsel are the early morning mass-attenders; evening supplicants get less attention, as non-Catholic friends have figured it all out by six or seven at night.
But they will forget again next year, and will once again quietly make little “wipe your forehead” gestures to their office colleagues from across the conference room during 9 a.m. admin meetings.
Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. Rare, true words spoken by the Catholic Church.