Being A Collegiate Catholic On Ash Wednesday

An Ultimate Test of Faith.

Kathryn Bagniewski in Lifestyle on Feb 15, 2016

“Today is that day when people make their heads dirty at church,” I hear from the girl behind me in line at dinner. Little did she know that one of those dirty-headed people was standing directly in front of her. I know she didn’t direct this comment at me, but I couldn’t help myself from suddenly getting embarrassed. When people looked at me and saw my “dirty head” did they make these kinds of comments? Were people staring at me during my classes because of my ashes? I am one of “those people” who walk around all day with ashes on my head on Ash Wednesday, and for the first time I truly understood the meaning of it.

I went to a Catholic school growing up, so I never encountered people on Ash Wednesday that didn’t understand or at least grasp the concept of why we walk around all day with our “dirty heads.” Therefore, the thought of people not understanding why I had a black cross on my forehead never occurred to me until I got to college.

When asked why I bear the black cross on my forehead on Ash Wednesday, I give the typical Catholic school girl answer, “They symbolize that God created man from ashes and that man returns to ashes after death. They also are a reminder of the sorrow and grief from personal sins and a symbol of repentance.” While this would have been a great answer for my 6th-grade theology course, it doesn’t fully illustrate the importance of the ashes to me as an individual.

A better answer would be, “I wear ashes all day on Ash Wednesday to symbolize the beginning of my walk with God this Lent. For me, they are an outward expression of my personal need to begin again and repent for my sins. I keep them on all day to publicly proclaim my intent to give up worldly desires and live more in Christ’s image.”

Still, it is hard to refrain from telling people, “Oh this is just a thing we do as Catholics,” when they ask why my head is dirty. It’s hard when you walk around campus and people stare at you wondering if you know that you have dirt on your forehead. It’s hard when you get overwhelmed with all of the gawks on campus and just want to wipe those ashes off.

But I think that going through these awkward moments may be the true challenge and lesson that we should take from Ash Wednesday as a college student. We are surrounded by a culture of millennials who believe in Jesus but dispel the importance of religion. We are expected to be rebellious against our upbringing and shift our morals to more college-appropriate values. As Catholics, Ash Wednesday is the perfect time for us college students to express our rejection of this status quo.

Sure, people may still think of me as a dirty-headed church-goer, but I have finally accepted that that is not a bad thing. If we wear our ashes proudly, it may just inspire others to do the same.

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