In Chaldean culture (Chaldeans being Catholics from Iraq) there is an expression that, roughly translated, means “ashes on your head.” It’s meant to be an insult. That expression popped into my head as I was contemplating Ash Wednesday.
In Biblical times, mourners would cover themselves in ashes as a symbol of their grief. And today, Catholics all over the world will be marked with ashes on their forehead and the reminder, “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
The ritual is a deeply humbling one, and from the crowds I encounter each year at Ash Wednesday services, an immensely popular one. I think we want to begin Lent in a posture of humility and prayer. I think, like giving something up for Lent, we long to express our Catholic identity.
So if you notice someone walking by with a smudge upon his or her forehead, resist the urge to say, “You’ve got a little sumpin sumpin on your forehead.” They know.