What Makes Ash Wednesday So Powerful

What Makes Ash Wednesday So Powerful

By Mary Rose Somarriba

What Makes Ash Wednesday So Powerful

Have you ever noticed how packed churches get on Ash Wednesday?

If you think about it, what often gets churches packed on Christmas and Easter—besides often being obligatory for practicing Christians to attend—is that many families are bringing along family members who may or may not be practicing Christians to attend with them.
You’d almost think it’s Christmas or Easter how packed churches get on this mid-week day that’s traditional yet optional for all range of Western Christians to attend—from Methodist to Lutheran to Presbyterian to Anglican to Catholic to Western Orthodox churches. But, on Ash Wednesday, nearly each man or woman has arrived on their own—often by themselves!

This year, the webmaster of my church was pleasantly surprised when she looked at the web analytics: the site had more users on Ash Wednesday than any other day of the year. Which actually seems to support the sense of non-churchgoers in attendance: it’s those who aren’t getting the bulletins and announcements each Sunday who need to look up the service times online.

I observed this a couple years ago when attending a service in Washington, DC. During the standing-room-only service, I saw faces I never saw on Sunday that day. My husband even recognized an old teaching colleague who was not a church-going Christian at the time; nevertheless she felt compelled that day to attend. “I just felt a pull today,” she said, after receiving the burnt ashes of last year’s palms on her forehead.

So what is it about Ash Wednesday that makes people remember it and show up? It certainly isn’t just to get a black smudge on their foreheads.

I think there’s something about Ash Wednesday that reminds us of something essentially human. If there’s something we can all relate to as human beings, it’s that we’re sinners. There’s something universal in this sense that we’ve strayed and we know it. There’s something beautiful about this honesty and willingness to show up and say so.

For Christians, Ash Wednesday is the start of the 40 days of Lent, preparing for Christ’s death and resurrection, during which Christians are called to pray, fast, and give alms to the poor. Many also give up something like sweets, or add a spiritual practice to their daily routine, as an effort to focus more on letting God work in our lives.

But, giving up chocolate or not, the pivotal part of Ash Wednesday is what perhaps most resonates with those making the greatest turnout. It’s the call to repent, to change our lives.

Of course, that’s what all Christians attending on Sundays are aiming to do as well—returning to keep refocusing our eyes on the goal, lift each other up, be nourished, and try again for another week. Because it’s true these 40 days, each Sunday, and Ash Wednesday that we’re all sinners. We all desperately need what we don’t deserve. It’s mercy, and it’s available for the taking, direct from the source of all Love, in limitless supply, every week and every day. All we need is to come and ask.

These Grammy Performances on Faith and Hope Will Lift Your Spirits

These Grammy Performances on Faith and Hope Will Lift Your Spirits

Mary Rose Somarriba

Grammy Performance on Faith and Hope
These Grammy Performances on Faith and Hope Will Lift Your Spirits

After watching the Grammys last night I couldn’t help but be struck by the numerous faith elements, not just in thank-you speeches this time but in song. While many musicians today at award shows continue to speak out in political tones, this year’s Grammys showcased a remarkable number of references to raising our eyes and ears higher. In fact, three songs performed had the word “pray” in the song’s title or refrain.

Sam Smith sings a reluctant man’s plea in the song “Pray” from his new album The Thrill of It All. Admitting, “I’m not a saint,” “Turn my back on religion,” and “You won’t find me in Church [or] reading the Bible,” the singer confesses that his heart still hasn’t been satisfied and longs for something more. “There’s dread in my heart and fear in my bones / And I just don’t know what to say / Maybe I’ll pray… I have never believed in you / But I’m gonna pray.” Smith sings, “I’ll pray for a glimmer of hope,” culminating with the chant, “Everyone prays in the end.” This is one of those songs where its humility makes it all the more powerful.

Among the most powerful moments of the evening was Kesha’s performance of her redemptive ballad “Praying,” which includes clear references to her painful experiences and legal battle with producer Dr. Luke, in which she has alleged years of sexual abuse. Joined by a choir of female stars including Cyndi Lauper, Andra Day, and Camila Cabello, Kesha belts follows her painful recollection of being “put through hell” with notes that lean toward forgiveness rather than revenge: “I hope you’re somewhere praying / I hope your soul is changing / I hope you find your peace / Falling on your knees, praying.” One gets the sense that Kesha herself has found her peace on her knees. “I can breathe again …I found a strength I’ve never known.” Making the Grammy performance all the more powerful was watching the women surround Kesha with a hug—a beautiful reminder of how supportive community can be a sign of God’s love in our lives.

Also on Sunday, Lady Gaga merged two songs from the album Joanne in a memorial to her late aunt. The singer recently released a new piano version of the title song, in which she mourns for her lost relative, while admitting she knows she lives eternally: “Honestly, I know where you’re goin’ / And baby, you’re just movin’ on / And I’ll still love you even if I can’t / See you anymore / Can’t wait to see you soar.” Gaga followed her tearful “Joanne” with a return to her hit “Million Reasons,” in which she belts such lyrics as “I bow down to pray … Lord, show me the way.” Gaga’s music video accompanying “Million Reasons” includes a climactic scene when her sister gives her a gift of a rosary—a sign of hope and healing in the story.

Both Gaga’s and Kesha’s songs were nominated for Best Solo Performance at the Grammys. While there will always be performances about politics and fighting injustice in this world, it’s consoling at times to also hear the songs about looking above and seeking internal peace—especially when the world fails to provide it.

Mary Rose Somarriba is a writer and editor living in Cleveland. Find her at maryrosesomarriba.com