From the end of December through the end of April is a busy time for a lot of Catholics. More Catholics will go to church more times in these four months than in an entire year.
You have no doubt heard the phrase C&E Catholics; reserved for those in the faith that only attend church two days a year; Christmas and Easter. One notch above C&E Catholics is a group who doubles that Mass attending output. That group is called CAPE Catholics, or CAPEs. These people, in addition to Christmas and Easter, pay special attention to two other days of the year: Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday. If you took the events in Liturgical order with Christmas coming first (C), then Ash Wednesday (A), Palm Sunday (P) and finally Easter (E) and put them all together, what does it spell?
These four events represent the three-year ministry of Jesus stripped to its bare bones. It is like the four bases of an epiphanic home run. And if you’re scoring at home, we just touched Christmas, are taking the turn, and heading straight into Ash Wednesday.
Ash Wednesday is big amongst CAPEs. It is the one event other than Palm Sunday that you actually get something: ashes upon the forehead. And man do CAPEs wear those ashes like a badge of honor. I mean, sure, I guess people could walk around holding a palm branch in their hands all day or maybe braiding it in their hair or something, but ashes on the forehead is much less work.
If a CAPE gets their ashes early in the day, those ashes go everywhere. To the gas station. To the gym. To work. To the drug store. To the supermarket. To lunch with friends. To the dentists. And every place in between. So why don’t people just wipe them off when they leave church? Simple. To signal to everyone who sees them, without ever saying it out loud: “look at me. I’m Catholic”. Which may not necessarily be true.
It may come as a surprise, but Ash Wednesday is not a Holy Day of Obligation and practicing Catholics do not have to attend Mass. Of course, all Catholics are encouraged to go as a way to begin the Lenten season with the proper attitude and reflection. It may also come as a surprise (as it did to me) that other faiths in additional to Catholics participate in the administering of ashes such as Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Moravians, Independent Catholics, Congregationalist, Continental Reformed, and Presbyterians.
The problem is that a lot of Catholics (or more broadly Christians in general) think their faith is a reflection of perception. People will see the ashes and perceive they are Catholic or, at least Christian. Much in the same manner as if they go church on Sunday or show up for the pancake breakfast and drop a five-dollar bill in the jar or if they sing in the choir or lector or usher or stay late cleaning the kitchen after a spaghetti feed, it will justify the depth of their faith as true. And it is, in a way. But it’s not the outer acts that are the true measure of faith, rather the inner acts. It’s the act of loving the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. It’s the act of loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s the act of forgiving your brother not seven times but seventy times seven. It’s the act of giving all glory to God.
The most important thing about the inner acts is that they are truly done for an audience of one. Jesus tells us to be not like the hypocrites in prayer, standing on the street corners for all to see they are praying. And to be not like the hypocrites who blow trumpets to announce their alms giving. And to be not as hypocrites in fasting who look disheveled in appearance, so they look as though they are sacrificing. God sees and hears and knows your every thought, meaning and intention and takes note of it. Whether or not 10 or 100 or 1,000 people witnessed it, doesn’t make it any more or less meaningful.
So, if you’re going to get your ashes this year, remember, it’s not what’s on the outside. God won’t have His telescope out looking down to see how big the smeared cross is on your forehead. But He will be looking inside to see how significant the cross is in your heart.