Monday, 14 March 2011

Religion in the Public Space: An Ash Wednesday Dilemma

Last Wednesday, Christians around the world (but primarily those in the Western traditions - Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian) started a period of about 40 days of prayer, fasting and charitable work known as Lent. The end of this period is, as is easily guessed, Easter - the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, it is the beginning - Ash Wednesday - that leaves me with an annual dilemma.

Last Wednesday, you might have noticed people on buses, Tube trains and around the workplace with dark ash-marks on their forehead. At the Ash Wednesday service, the priest or minister applies a paste of ashes and water on the Christian's head, imploring her or him to turn away from lives of selfishness and sin to one of selflessness and love. (Depending on the ash mixture used and the skill of the priest, the mark may or may not look like a sign of the cross!) The Christian who has been to one of these services faces an immediate dilemma - does one simply leave the ashes on and risk the stares of people around, or quietly wash them off once out of the church?

On the one hand, who wants to draw attention to herself/himself? Who wants to be seen as possibly a 'religious nutter' (or even 'fundamentalist')? What does leaving the ashes on prove anyway? Besides, did not Jesus say, "But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:17)?

On the other hand, can it really be fair or right that one feels pressured to hide one's beliefs and religion by what others might think? Is not religious freedom a cornerstone of the modern democracy? Besides, did not Jesus say, "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven." (Matthew 10:32-33)

What do you think? And, if you're a Christian yourself and went to an Ash Wednesday service, did you leave the ashes on all day or wash them off fairly quickly? Why?


  1. I went to services at night, then went straight home, where I washed it off almost at once. But I'm reasonably sure that if I'd stopped for pizza on the way home, I'd have left it on. It *is* showing off, just a bit. On the other hand, you could say it's witnessing, maybe leading someone to think just a bit about a wider world.

    I imagine priests have a similar dilemma about the Roman collar. Wear it and stand out, or leave it off and be just one of the guys?

  2. I've got a facebook pic papped by a classmate with me with the cross in class. In England, I don't really think it counts as showing off in the same way as in the States because religion in the public space is frowned on here. Luckily I am in an anthropology department so most people see it as a cultural expression and therefore like it. It is an external sign of identity which might be showy but I think it's also good to represent once in a while.


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