Today is Ash Wednesday, a Catholic tradition that marks the start of the Lenten season. Or to us Catholic school kids, who’ll never forget, it’s time to give up something for 40 days to remind us of sacrifice.
Everyone strolled around the neighborhood with their ash crosses on their forehead, a mark of a ‘good Catholic,’ on Ash Wednesday. You didn’t have one, you must be late to church, hurry, the priest is there until eight at night.
During grammar and high school, no student got a free pass on the ashes. If you were on your death bed, you got ashes. And don’t try to tell a teacher you went to church at six-thirty in the morning with your mom, washed your face and the ashes came off. We had to wash around the ashes. Everyone knew that. A double dose of ashes for you.
The teachers lined the entire school up, two by two, like little kids boarding Noah’s Ark. First graders walked to church first, followed by the rest. The trip to church was the best part.
We counted how many kids fell off the sidewalk, ran into a pole, or lurched over a fire hydrant. They didn’t get any sympathy from the teachers because they ‘should be watching instead of talking.’
Smoldering trails of incense, sweaty kids, and corn chips smelled up the church on Ash Wednesday. Into the pews went the first graders until the last eighth grader sat.
Row by row we stepped into line, waited for the priest to smudge our forehead. First graders got a nice, neat black cross. The eighth graders got either a letter J or some kind of ashy Rorschach blot.
Dinner conversation on Ash Wednesday covered the items we had to give up. Candy, soda, or Hostess cupcakes were the standard fare. The Hostess cupcakes was a good one because we rarely had those. They didn’t put those items out at the Weber Bread outlet, only those crusty apple, or lemon turnovers.
If it was Friday, we had fish, or shrimp with nopales (cactus), or nopales with chile, or mac and cheese, anything without meat.
We counted off each day until Good Friday, not because we looked forward to fasting one meal but because of the Passion Procession.
Kid you not, we had a genuine procession from the old church to the newer one with real people playing the part of Christ, Mary, and the Roman Soldiers, with their uniforms and everything.
The procession brought out hundreds of people to the street. I’m talking about viejitas swathed in black shawls to babies in strollers, visitors, religious orders, and a few gang bangers. By the time we got to the crucifixion hundreds of people were in tears, shouts rose, the motorcycle cops looked scared.
Each year I attended it always got cloudy when the cross went up. Sometimes the wind kicked up, or a drizzle fell, or all three.
We got older and less Catholic (except Mom of course). Ashes were still de rigeur but giving food up wasn’t as important as doing something positive or less negative: giving up cussing or alcohol, be nicer, or pay people compliments every day.
I like this message from the Pope:
He’s on Twitter. Some more wise words:
You don’t have to be Catholic to know these are wise words for Lent or life. Have a great week!