Where Did Ash Wednesday Go?

What has happened to Ash Wednesday? Is the wearing of ashes in decline everywhere? Or only in New York City, a sanctuary city for people of every faith or unfaith? Or was I just in the wrong part of town at the wrong hour?


Goya print.
Francisco de Goya. Rejoice, Carnival, for Tomorrow Thou wilt Be Ashes (c. 1815-24).

I took an early commuter train into the city this morning, and was on the subway to Columbus Circle between 8:30 and 9:00 am. Coming up out of the station, I passed a young woman with ashes—the first I had seen since I left the house. Walking west one block to St. Paul the Apostle, I saw only a single man marked with ashes. A trickle of people were going into the church for ashes. I followed in for mine, turned around, and doubled back to Broadway. On the way, no one else passed me with their foreheads marked.

I was headed for the Museum of Biblical Art for a press briefing by Monsignor Timothy Verdon, director of the Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage in Florence. He had no ashes either; and neither did anyone else attending.

Three people took note of the black smudge on my forehead. Over coffee, a public relations woman greeted me with “Oh, I love your . . .” I thought she was about to say “haircut” but, after a pause, she came up with, “mark.”

Pieter Breughal the Elder. Painting of village carnival
Pieter Breughal the Elder. Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559). Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

A second woman tapped me to say—in the hushed tone women use when they tell another that her slip is hanging or her dress label is sticking up—”You have something on your forehead.” She thought she was being helpful.

So I smiled and said, “Yes, it’s Ash Wednesday.” She gave me a quizzical look that suggested she had no idea what Ash Wednesday was. Such is the level of ritual  comprehension in the press.

It was heartening to have a third woman tell me that she had not yet had a chance to get her ashes. But relief did not last long. In the next breath she confided that she was up from Virginia where she lives in an ashram and is used to all kinds of ashes. In all kinds of colors. For all kinds of reasons.

Press business done, I headed back down into the subway, back to the shuttle, and over to Grand Central. Along the way, I scanned the morning crush, looking very hard for ashes. I counted only three more people in the crowd. (Believe me, I was really, really looking.) A total of five in one of the most heavily trafficked—foot traffic—parts of the city.

Maybe it was just too early in the day. Maybe Catholics will stop in a church at lunchtime or their way home. Still, on this Ash Wednesday, more than any other day in a very long time, I felt bereft.