A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Wear your ashes to work day

The celebrant of the Mass I went to yesterday said that if people asked us afterward if it was Ash Wednesday, we had permission to answer: “No. Why do you ask?”

It was the kind of benign joke meant to fade faster than the smudge on your forehead, but it came back to me last night while watching a local political news show on which one of the regular guests made sure to note the ashes on his forehead and declare it a true sign of what he called “RC” – “real Christianity, baby! Roman Catholicism!” The guest was Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels and by now just another more-or-less tolerated presence on the New York media and politics scene. So maybe it was only to be expected that he’d follow this by bending his bicep and proclaiming (here I paraphrase, because the clip isn’t available) that Ash Wednesday is the day “we RCs get to flex our Catholic muscle!”

Another joke, more stupid than benign, but maybe less benign than bellicose. I can imagine many viewers not recognizing it as humor, and maybe others willing to see it as an attempt at such, but also identifying in it something defensive if not hostile (never mind at odds with the gospel message of the day). Plus, he did it on TV.

Sliwa wore his ashes to work on Wednesday, like many other Catholics, as this National Catholic Register story details. Among them was another TV personality, Tony Reali of ESPN sports talk show “Around the Horn.” He’s done it for a number of years, though he notes in the story that he’s struggled “with the publicness” of it, his main worry being that non-Catholics might criticize his decision as an effort to force his faith on others.

Are there degrees of “publicness”? Is walking along the sidewalk different from sitting at your desk or running a large meeting—or going in front of the camera and into people’s living rooms? Forget about workplace policies. When and where does the silent or quiet evangelization become too noisy, the public expression of faith too pushy? Is it only at the point when someone like Sliwa comes in off the street and gets on the air?

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

p { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }

I think that one of the first things I would observe is that the ashes are not “religious garb,” per se What I mean is that they mark identity or fulfill an obligation in a way different than, say, hijab.To be honest, I am not 100% cerain why it is important to me to remark on that, but I suspect that it is because I am a Quebecker, and here many are trying to legislate on religious garb on the principle that it as “an effort to force [...] faith on others.” The two things just seem different, though there are obvious places for overlap.

I suppose that internal disposition (conscience?) can be the only thing that regulates how people approach wearing the ashes, unless local convention or actual rules play a prescriptive role. Surely, anyone wearing the ashes with the hope of getting attention (positive or otherwise) who did an honest self-evaluation would struggle to endorse their decision. While I doubt that anyone acting from a triumphant tribalist position (e.g., Silwa) will evaluate himself, it seems fair for others to fault his decisions. That said, there may be something to say for keeping the ashes on as a way of saying, “Yes, we are even here,” which could have evangelizing potential depending on context. Is that the wrong thing to do? Again, it seems like it's the responsibility of everyone to judge for themselves the basis of their decisions.

One last note. In discussions like this, I observe that reference is often made to Jesus' remarks on public display of religious austerity. I think that there is real validity to talking about the ashes in light of that text, but I would also state that I've always been, dare I say it, a bit amused by the tendency to isolate statements made by Jesus and transform them into rules. I guess what I mean is that that text isn't a decisive key in-and-of itself.

Though ashes on Ash Wednesday are likely most associated with Catholics, there are other Christian denominations--e.g., Anglicans, Lutherans, some Methodist groups--that also follow the practice of the imposition of ashes. As long as someone isn't as in-your-face as Curtis Sliwa was, I don't see any problem with the presence of ashes in the workplace. I've had non-Christian colleagues ask me about the practice, and I regard such questions as a teaching opportunity rather than an evangelical one. Is the presence of ashes any different than the wearing of jewelry in the shape of crosses or menorahs or the Om symbol? 

Is the presence of ashes any different than the wearing of jewelry in the shape of crosses or menorahs or the Om symbol?

Surely, it is. The ashes are significanty more marked as special than jewelry. For starters, ashes are worn one day out of the year, instead of (theoretically) daily. Also, the ashes are very unlikley to be received by casual onlookers as mere adornment or fashion (as could easily be the case with jewelry). Further, the ashes are an element of a particular ritual context and so are potentially laden with much more meaning than jewelry, which could be worn for any number of reasons. Finally, the ashes are on the skin, and not just the skin, but the skin of the foreheard: they are especially visible in that they are located on the face.

What does all of that mean? Well, that's up for discussion. But I don't think anything gets moved forward by failing to note the distinctiveness of the ashes when compared to jewelry.

I thought the "publicness" of  it was central to the ritual; public witness that we're

mortal, sinful and, I guess, Christian.  

Then what about a highly visible tattoo (perhaps on the face) in the form of a religious symbol? (I'm not trying to be facetious.) Perhaps because I don't have a problem with religious symbol adornment in general, I don't have any problem with people who wear their ashes and go about their daily routine in public on Ash Wednesday.  

I think I would leave it up to each ash wearer (ashee?) to decide whether to publicize or keep private this acknowledgment of mortality, sinfulness, and the need for repentance. But one caveat: if I'm hoping the ashes will be a conversation starter that leads to an opportunity for evangelization in the workplace, I'd better try extra hard not to be a jerk there the rest of the year. Which could prove to be quite a penance in itself.

I agree with Abe that the ashes are a public identifier - although, as Bill C notes, it doesn't necessarily identify one as Catholic.  I guess it identifies a person as religiously observant and situated in a liturgical tradition.  And it is more than just an identifier, as the ashes themselves have a meaning (or maybe more than one meaning).  And there is a historical meaning, too: the tribe of American Catholics who were more set-apart (and in some places discriminated against) a few generations ago than is the case now.  So there might be an element of defiance in wearing ashes publicly?

I 'gave' ashes twice yesterday, and I was really struck by the facial expressions of the people who approached me.  Some of them were really excited - they were glowing.  It's the same when we bless throats on the feast of St. Blase.  These things marry the physical and the spiritual in a way that approaches sacramentality, istm.

In New Orleans some non-Catholics get ashes.  Or they used to.

 I run with a very secular crowd; so when I show up with ashes, I get the same looks I would receive as if I unexpectedly came to work in a burka. I don't think of it as pushing my faith on people. I'm actually kind of embarrassed to be running around with this on my forehead; but I figure l shouldn't be ashamed to believe in God.  Not wearing ashes because I'm uncomfortable feels like I'm not doing right by Him.


When I wore ashes at work this year (in Providence, RI), I received a nod from one Jewish colleague with whom I've discussed it in previous years, a question from an Israeli colleague who is visiting the US: "What is this? I have never seen this and don't know what it is about,", and a delighted remark from the woman downstairs cleaning the entrance doors to the building: "Oh, you're wearing ashes!! No one here does it. In my country, everyone wears ashes on Ash Wednesday." I asked where she comes from: Cape Verde.

My daughter had invited me to dinner. When she saw me, she remarked: "Oh, right, today is Ash Wednesday!" - she had not been aware of it. We had a delicious meal, with meat that was as good as sin.


Claire - I'd say you did the right thing by eating the meat.  Not that you need my approval :-).  But that's the kind of thing that will haunt some Catholics for decades to come.


On last night's Daily Show there was a brief clip of Rudy Giuliani on a Fox News program, obviously from Wednesday.  He had the biggest black cross of ashes I have ever seen -- looked like it covered the entire width of his forehead.  Made me think of Sliwa's RC muscle flexing meme.

Jack Marth's post reminded me of a former colleague who was walking towards me one Ash Wednesday with the largest and darkest smudge of ashes I'd ever seen. I asked if he had gone through the distribution line twice, but his reply indicated that he missed my attempt at humor: "As a matter of fact, I did. I didn't think the ashes were distinct enough after my first time through." I didn't bother to ask him how he had become aware of such inadequacy.     

Had ashes on my forehead. The cleaning lady in an office I was visiting had them too. We saluted.

I noticed that Stephen Colbert who made a big deal of his ashes in the past didn't seem to have them this year!! Too much make-up? Unnecessary for America's most important Catholic (goes without doing, etc)?

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment