On Ash Wednesday, the 12:10 Mass in the crypt of Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart was more crowded than usual, in fact, a standing-room-only affair. It was to be expected. On Sundays and 10 other holy days, Church law requires Catholics to be at Mass, but not on Ash Wednesday, when every Mass seems nevertheless to be jammed to the rafters.
There are other ironies to notice in the way most of us begin our Lent, such as the pointed disregarding of the Gospel admonition read to us from the pulpit that day: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting.”
We hear that and then go through the rest of our work day sporting a conspicuously smudged charcoal gray cross on the forehead. (In some regions of the political blogosphere, there was even speculation before and wry comment after Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, both Catholics, appeared with clean foreheads during the televised debates in Mesa, Arizona.)
Nor do we look all that gloomy, come to think of it. Hypocrites we may well be, but most of us came out of the crypt yesterday chatting companionably as we returned to our various workplaces, this after being reminded singly and severally that we were dust and that into dust we would return.
At least for a few moments after Mass, it felt fine with me to know that I was dust — as if I knew that the dust which I was and would return to was dust I could well afford to lose, as surely I could afford to lose a few pounds by my fasting, to lose a few dollars by helping out the poor, to lose a few enemies by refusing to have enemies, to lose the craven being I’d made of myself by despairing of it for the time being, and letting God make something better. At least that was how it felt. And the expressions on most of the ash-smeared faces of the others suggested that I was not alone in that feeling.
I knew, of course, that the feeling was as ephemeral as the ashes themselves: As the days of Lent lengthened, my resolve would wane and my temper shorten. Ash Wednesday begins “the time of tension between dying and birth,” that T.S. Eliot’s eponymous poem describes, and the Lenten weather forecast is raw, gray and rainy.
Mildly cursing as I scraped a thin coat of ice from the car windshield early Thursday morning, I ruefully noted how much that rime resembled the coating of a chilled martini glass. The sun was rising sluggishly, but enough to make the hoarfrost sparkle, to make each glint suggest a tiny Pascal flame.
Michael Garvey is Notre Dame’s assistant director of public relations. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.