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.