Why Do We Receive Ashes on Ash Wednesday? And Why is it Such a Big Deal in South Louisiana?
Have you ever wondered why people walk around with ashes on their heads for Ash Wednesday?
The question isn't one that is exclusive to non-Catholics on non-Christians, as there are many people who were "raised Catholic" or Christian that don't actually know the meaning behind the post-Mardi Gras tradition or why we do it in the first place.
The tradition of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is an important practice for Catholics worldwide, but it holds particular significance for Catholics in South Louisiana.
What makes it so significant for South Louisiana Catholics?
One reason for this is that South Louisiana has a strong Catholic tradition, dating back to the French and Spanish colonial periods. Many of the early settlers were Catholic, and much like our food and our music, the faith has been passed down through generations.
Another reason is the unique cultural mix found in South Louisiana, which includes French, Spanish, African, and Native American influences. This has led to the development of a distinct Catholic culture, with its own traditions and practices.
How does Mardi Gras play into all of this?
One of our biggest traditions in South Louisiana is Mardi Gras, which culminates on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is a time of celebration and indulgence before Lent. So, Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season that follows are particularly meaningful for Catholics in South Louisiana as a time of reflection, sacrifice, and spiritual renewal.
What are some new ways that the Catholic church is reaching out to communities?
Many churches in South Louisiana have a strong sense of community and social outreach. The ashes on Ash Wednesday are a way to publicly show one's commitment to faith and to come together as a community in worship and repentance.
In recent years, some Catholic churches in South Louisiana have started offering "mobile ashes" aka "drive-thru ashes" as a way to make the Ash Wednesday tradition more accessible to people who may not have the time or ability to attend a traditional church service.
How do "mobile ashes" work? Do they have the same "blessing" outside of a church setting?
Mobile ashes involve priests or church volunteers going out into the community, often to public spaces like parks or large parking lots, to distribute ashes to people who may not be able to attend a church service. This is often done in conjunction with prayer and worship services that are held in the community.
Drive-thru ashes are similar, but actually, take place in the church parking lot. People can drive up to the designated area, and a priest or volunteer will come to their car window to distribute the ashes and offer a brief prayer—very similar to mobile confessionals that operate in a similar fashion.
So, that wasn't just a COVID thing?
Both mobile and drive-thru ashes have become increasingly popular in recent years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many churches were closed for in-person services. They offer a way for people to participate in the Ash Wednesday tradition without having to attend a crowded church service.
Overall, the tradition of receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is an important practice for Catholics and all Christians worldwide, but it holds a special place in the hearts of Catholics in South Louisiana, where it is deeply rooted in history, culture, and community.
So, if you see ashes (or "dirt") on someone's head this Ash Wednesday, now you know why.