Today is “Ash Wednesday”. In Oklahoma, Ash Wednesday can come and go without anyone even realizing it. Oklahoma lies in a “Bible Belt” but we are NOT predominantly Catholic. Do large populations of Catholics call themselves a “Bible Belt”? I refer to Catholics because prior to returning to Oklahoma, I lived in New Mexico, where the majority of churches and church attendees are Catholic and adhere strictly to the Catholic faith, traditions, and rituals.
I managed a staff of support personnel in a medical clinic and Ash Wednesday was one of the most popular days to request leave, second only to “Good Friday” which is observed locally by a pilgrimage to a “holy” land north of Albuquerque, called “Chimayo”. People would walk 10, 20, even 100 or more miles to reach Chimayo by Easter Sunday in repentance and seeking healing.
Here is an excerpt from a news article covering this tradition:
The destination of the pilgrims, El Santuario de Chimayo, is believed to hold the power to heal mind and body. A pilgrim from Las Cruces, New Mexico years ago left a note in the shrine advising: "If you are a stranger, if you are weary from the struggles in life, whether you have a handicap, whether you have a broken heart, Follow the long mountain road, Find a home in Chimayo..." The shrine is a time capsule for nearly two centuries of reverent pilgrims' notes and prayers, homemade crosses, votive candles and crutches left behind. http://www.houstonculture.org/hispanic/chimayo.html
I drove to Chimayo once, because frankly, they have incredible red Chile. I went into the little chapel (it is tiny and has a low, low ceiling). I could feel a sense of history and the need to quiet myself out of respect for those who traveled before me to this place. A part of me was saddened by the thought that these people were searching for healing that Jesus Christ can only provide. The people take the dirt from Chimayo and use it in prayer vigils and to offer to the sick and dying that couldn’t make the trip. I still keep some of this dirt as a reminder. The site never seems to deplete as you would expect. The cynic in me thinks they just add any old “dirt” to the clay floors, but there is definitely something “holy” about this place.
That was just a short ‘plug’ for a very interesting and worthwhile trip for those of you vacationing through New Mexico this year.
Throughout the Old Testament there are examples of the use of ashes (and sackcloth) as an act of repentance to God and Jesus refers to this in the New Testament as well…I decided to “research” information about Ash Wednesday and its potential significance to me as a Christian.
From this source: http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/CU/ac0204.asp
Despite all these references in Scripture, the use of ashes in the Church left only a few records in the first millennium of Church history. Thomas Talley, an expert on the history of the liturgical year, says that the first clearly datable liturgy for Ash Wednesday that provides for sprinkling ashes is in the Romano-Germanic pontifical of 960. Before that time, ashes had been used as a sign of admission to the Order of Penitents. As early as the sixth century, the Spanish Omarabad rite calls for signing the forehead with ashes when admitting a gravely ill person to the Order of Penitents. At the beginning of the 11th century, Abbot Aelfric notes that it was customary for all the faithful to take part in a ceremony on the Wednesday before Lent that included the imposition of ashes. Near the end of that century, Pope Urban II called for the general use of ashes on that day. Only later did this day come to be called Ash Wednesday.
At first, clerics and men had ashes sprinkled on their heads, while women had the sign of the cross made with ashes on their foreheads. Eventually, of course, the ritual used with women came to be used for men as well.
In the 12th century the rule developed that the ashes were to be created by burning palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. Many parishes today invite parishioners to bring such palms to church before Lent begins and have a ritual burning of the palms after Mass.
I remember my first year in New Mexico I saw many people with what appeared to be “dirt” on their foreheads and I’m telling you right now, I darn near did the ‘lick thumb, clear forehead’ on several people I knew. Thankfully, one of my closest friends stopped me in the ‘nick of time’ before I defiled the work of a Holy Roman Priest! Good grief, talk about BAD KARMA!
One year, the same friend, brought to me this dried straw looking stuff that was in the shape of a cross (I had never been exposed to Catholics on this level before) It was one of the “Palms” that a local artist made into a cross. I still have it and I look at it sometimes and pray that God would always remind me of the power of the cross.
There is so much history in church and religion and while for me and my own relationship with Christ, some of it seems superfluous, it is still sacred and beautiful and almost vital to a huge population of people.
Ash Wednesday is the most attended day of the year in the Catholic Church. Did you know that? So that tells me, this day must hold significance, on some level, to all of us. This writing could simply be a warning to avoid the natural reaction of clearing someone’s forehead today. Though I hope it also causes us to stop and thank God for all He is and all He has done and all He is doing.
Have a wonderful Ash Wednesday!