What’s That Dirt on Your Head? Oh Yeah, It’s Ash Wednesday

“Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return.”

Can I get a hellz yeah? Can I get a what what?

Seriously, all the Catholics in the house, just wave your hands in the air, and wave `em like you recognize the Lord Jesus Christ has died for you sins and you are marking the beginning of Lent by getting ashes on your head. And you DO care! Fo shizzle.

Okay…it’s Ash Wednesday, signifying 40 days until Easter. Now I recognize that other Christian faiths celebrate Ash Wednesday, but until you other non-Catholics start incorporating incense, intense fasting, and a pervasive sense of guilt in everything you do, I’m claiming this day for us.

Actually, Miss Pop Rocks herself is a fallen away Catholic…or, as my mother might put it, Satan-bound. But I do believe I’ve paid my dues. I’m talking 13 years of Catholic school, fasting on the Holy Days, confession once a month, and scapulars and rosaries artfully draped all over my childhood bedroom. I’m talking about the fact that when I had a headache, Miss Pop Rocks’s mama ran not only for the Tylenol, but for the holy water from Lourdes. Seriously. As I’ve discussed with many of my Jewish friends, there are certain religions – and Catholicism is one of them – that you can never really leave. They’re a part of you always, like it or not.

I remember as a little girl on Ash Wednesday being marched up the sidewalk that connected my parish’s grammar school and church and feeling the intense seriousness of entering for Mass. There my classmates and I were, swaddled in plaid, our hands clasped in prayer, our knees bent in devotion, our eyes sliding back and forth, checking to see if anyone cute was seated near us. Then, when it was time to receive the ashes, we’d walk up somberly, waiting for the gritty feeling to hit us just above our eyebrows, and we’d listen to the priest’s dire warning. (Which loosely translates into: “Kid, you’re going to die one day. So be ready.”)

Back in the classroom, there’d be an inevitable contest to see who had the darker cross on his or her forehead. For some reason, I think we felt that the heavier the cross, the closer we were to God. Even the popular girls who were usually hyper-concerned about their appearances thought it was way rad to have a smudge on their foreheads. If you got a light cross, you felt scammed somehow, cheated. All year you waited for Ash Wednesday to receive a sign that said, “I’m special,” and you knew that barely-there cross would most likely be gone by lunch (a meat-free lunch, natch).

I now only go to Mass on Christmas and sometimes Easter. But there are certain things I take with me from my Catholic childhood. The St. Jude medal around my neck. My holy cards of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And the memories of Ash Wednesday…a day when you felt important, marked by God himself, saved from all damnation. A day when, for once, dirtiness was next to Godliness. – Jennifer Mathieu