A Catholic priest once told me that Ash Wednesday is the most heavily attended mass of the year: Not Easter, not Christmas, a day when your head is smeared with ashes as a reminder of mortality. An Episcopal priest made the same observation. Both priests were uncertain why Ash Wednesday is so popular but theorized people come to church because “they get something”—even if that something was only some ashes.
A recent experiment by Sara Miles offers further data on the sociological mystery of Ash Wednesday. For four years Miles—who serves as the Director of Ministry at Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco—has roamed the streets giving ashes to anyone who wants them. Not only are strangers on the sidewalk happy to be smeared with ashes and told they are going to die, but some chased Miles down to get their ashes.
In an interview, Miles invokes the term “lived religion” to describe the appeal of Ash Wednesday. Historians of religion know that in practice, religion is usually improvisational and messy with plenty of ritual and material sacra. The idea that religious ritual belongs inside the church and not on the city streets is closely aligned with liberal Protestant and post-Enlightenment ideas of “good” religion. In fact, when people are teased for participating in Ash Wednesday—“Hey, you got something on your forehead!”—this can be read as a subtle way of re-asserting these social norms.
But this still doesn’t explain the appeal of ashes. In her column, Miles suggests that people want to be reminded that they’re going to die—that the illusion of immortality is a burden from which Ash Wednesday provides temporary relief. I still wonder if the priests’ insight that “you get something” on Ash Wednesday isn’t closer to the truth. This material incentive doesn’t mean that Ash Wednesday is like the prize that persuades consumers to purchase a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Instead, the “gift” of ashes is desirable because it gives material form to religious identity. Ash Wednesday allows people to perform their religion through an embodied practice.
The blessing, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” offers insight into the significance of material religion. We often imagine religion as something intangible and invisible that occurs only in our hearts and souls. But we are creatures with material bodies living in a material world. As such, our innermost beliefs and religious sentiments remain invisible unless they are given physical expression. For religion scholars, the lesson of Ash Wednesday may be, “Remember: we are dust, and from dust shall we make meaning.”