When the famous Ellen DeGeneres Oscar selfie appeared on my Facebook wall on Mardi Gras, modified with ash crosses, I laughed. But on Ash Wednesday, I began to worry.
The #ashtag is making its rounds on Twitter and Facebook, accompanied with selfies from clerics and laypeople alike, but is it contrary to what Catholics hear in the readings today? “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Fr. Michael Wurtz, priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, explains in the National Catholic Register that “Ashes should not be viewed primarily as a tool for evangelization, nor should Catholics wear them publicly for the wrong reasons. . . .We do not pray the Mass, for example, so that we can be seen. Our Lord warns against those who exalt themselves.”
Which is why I won’t be using the #ashtag today: While the #ashtag can have the intentions to evangelize, the #ashtag reduces a sacramental to the ephemeral. We’ve turned away from sin only to turn toward ourselves in our immediate taking of a selfie after the imposition of ashes.
The use of ashes in penitential rites has origins in the Old Testament, and the Church continued to use ashes in its liturgical practices for the same symbolic meanings of mourning, penance, and mortality:
Eusebius (260-340), the famous early Church historian, recounted in his The History of the Church how an apostate named Natalis came to Pope Zephyrinus clothed in sackcloth and ashes begging forgiveness. Also during this time, for those who were required to do public penance, the priest sprinkled ashes on the head of the person leaving confession.
In the Middle Ages (at least by the time of the eighth century), those who were about to die were laid on the ground on top of sackcloth sprinkled with ashes. The priest would bless the dying person with holy water, saying, “Remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” After the sprinkling, the priest asked, “Art thou content with sackcloth and ashes in testimony of thy penance before the Lord in the day of judgment?” To which the dying person replied, “I am content.” In all of these examples, the symbolism of mourning, mortality and penance is clear.
Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you shall return: Such is the seriousness of these sacramental ashes.