Evangelizing Answers to Every Catholic's Favorite Ash Wednesday Question
We don't presume to have the right response for every situation, but there are a few suggestions below that might help give you a foundation whether the questioner is a stranger just trying to be helpful...
Hey, you've got a little something on your forehead.
A fellow Catholic who forgot it was Ash Wednesday:
Ashes! Oh man, is it really Ash Wednesday today? I totally forgot and didn't go.
Or a confused friend:
Ummm...what's that dirt on your head?
The first thing to consider before responding is the other person. What kind of relationship do you have with them? What is their faith background or practice? How open are they to discussions about faith or conversations about Jesus? Evangelization is all about meeting people where they are and helping them take their next best step on their faith journey.
A stranger who is just trying to be helpful and polite in pointing out the smudge they see on your forehead probably isn't ready for a full catechetics lesson on the symbolism of ashes, repentance, and the nature of death.
A friend with whom you've had a few conversations about your faith and who seems open to going a little deeper might be ready for you to share what sorrow for your sins has looked like in your own life, but might not be open to lecture on how the Old Testament prophets used ashes.
An acquaintance who would identify as "spiritual, but not religious" might be able to receive a message about how the ashes are a physical reminder of God's love, but might not be open to the full depth of Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross just yet.
The most important thing to consider when responding to someone asking you about your ashes is how the Holy Spirit might have been moving in their hearts to prompt them to ask you - and what depth of answer the Holy Spirit is prompting you to share.
What Does It Mean To You?
The second thing to consider is how much you personally understand and enter into the meaning of Ash Wednesday. We can only lead people somewhere we are also trying to go. If evangelization is meant to invite people into a deeper relationship with Jesus and His Church, then I need to make sure that all my own Lenten practices (including attending Mass on Ash Wednesday) are focused on trying to go deeper in my own relationship with Jesus and His Church.
Here are a few links to help you dive a little deeper in your own understanding:
Why we receive ashes (Catholic Online)
Where do Ash Wednesday Ashes come from? (Catholic News Agency)
Preparing For Lent (Fr. Mike Schmitz)
So, you've considered both where they're coming from and what Ash Wednesday means to you. You've said a short, quick prayer asking the Holy Spirit to help you respond in the most fruitful way and are listening to His promptings. But what do you actually say?
The best responses are open and honest, without being abrasive or condescending. Don't be an Abrasive Abner!
Possible Answer #1
Having ashes on your forehead isn’t just some weird Catholic thing: it’s a tradition that finds its roots in the Old Testament.
“I turned to the Lord God, to seek help, in prayer and petition, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:3).
When the ashes are placed on our foreheads in the sign of the Cross, it is a reminder of a few things. First, it is a call to repentance: a physical sign that I am a sinner in need of forgiveness, which is how the prophets used it in the Old Testament. Second, it is to remind me that God created us from the earth and when I die, I will return to it. It might sound morbid, but remembering that this life is not the end is an essential element of my faith.
Possible Answer #2
The ashes are a reminder that God loves me so much that, even when my body returns to the dust, my soul is meant to live forever with him.
“Man is dust and to dust he shall return, but dust is precious in God’s eyes because God created man, destining him to immortality.” (Pope Benedict XVI)
Once a year, my Church spends 40 days really focusing on remembering exactly how much God loves us - even when we don't deserve that love. Today is the first day of that season (which we call Lent), and it starts with this tangible and physical reminder.
Possible Answer #3
Ash Wednesday comes from the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting. The practice includes the wearing of ashes on the head. The ashes symbolize the dust from which God made us. They also symbolize grief, in this case, they are meant to be a physical sigh of the grief I have for the ways I sinned and caused division from God.
Possible Answer #4
Thanks so much! I actually have them there on purpose. I'm Catholic and today is Ash Wednesday.
The most important part of your answer isn't actually the formula or script you use to respond. It's not about the words you say - it's about having a posture of invitation that opens the door for the Holy Spirit to keep working in, with, and through you.
- Be open to continuing the conversation if they ask more questions.
- Consider inviting them to come to the evening Mass with you (even if it means you might end up going again!).
- Tell them that adding prayer is an important part of your Lenten practice and ask them if there is any specific intention you can add for them over the next 40 days.
- Offer to pray with them right then and there.
What about you? Have you had a great moment of evangelization on Ash Wednesday? We want to hear about it!