By Carol Zimmermann
(CNS) — Ash Wednesday seems to offer contradictory messages. The Gospel
reading for the day is about not doing public acts of piety but the very act of
getting ashes — and walking around with them — is pretty public.
This becomes even less of a
private moment when people post pictures of themselves online with their ashes following
the #ashtag trend of recent years.
The online posting of one’s
ashes, often marked in the form of a cross on the forehead, thrills some people
and disappoints others. Some say it diminishes the significance and penitent
symbol of the ashes with their somber reminder that humans are made from dust
and one day will return to dust.
Others say that sharing the Ash
Wednesday experience with the broader, virtual public makes it more communal and also
is a way to evangelize. Those who aren’t on either side of the argument
say it all comes down to why it’s done, if the ashes selfies are posted for personal
attention or to highlight the day’s message.
A few years ago when this trend
was just getting started, Jesuit Father James Martin, now editor-at-large at the Catholic
weekly magazine America, said only the person posting knows if it is being
done for the right reasons. “As with most things in life, you need a sense
of moderation and only a person’s conscience can tell them why they’re posting
these things,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
Stanz, director of new evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin,
similarly said people should pause and pray before posting ashes selfies, but
then go ahead and do it.
noted that this goes against the notion that Catholics should practice their
faith quietly and in private.
make no mistake about it: Faith, while personal, is not solely meant to be a
private affair,” she wrote in a column for The Compass, Green Bay’s diocesan newspaper, last Lent. “Ash Wednesday is a day when we literally wear
our faith on our forehead.”
become, on this day, a visual extension of the love of Christ — a love which
transcends time and distance, whether in the real world or the virtual world,”
also pointed out that for millennials — the group most likely to observe
Lenten practices, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate
at Georgetown University — “the digital space is an extension of their
world and so posting an image after receiving ashes seems natural.”
doesn’t stop after we receive ashes. We go about our daily lives — we wear our
ashes at the grocery store, when picking up our children from school and at home
gathered around the family table. Wearing ashes in the real and virtual world
is about harmonizing who we are as people of faith. If we wear them in the ‘real’
world, then we should also wear them in cyberspace,” she said.
Stanz told Catholic News Service in a Feb. 22 email that her column “To ashtag or not to ashtag” was one of the most popular ones she has written, and it generated a lot of dialogue on social media and with people who got in touch with her to share their story.
A number of Catholic groups, and even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has urged people to post their Ash Wednesday photos online.
A leader at Life Teen, a ministry to Catholic teenagers, which also has highlighted the #ashtag trend, said receiving ashes and posting pictures of them is a way to recognize
and share our need for God.
receiving ashes, we’re claiming our own sinfulness, brokenness, and need for
God, with an outward sign,” said Leah
Murphy, coordinator of digital evangelization and outreach at Life Teen in
In an email to CNS, she
said posting Ash Wednesday photos on social media, where so many people
connect, is a way to “invite the secular culture to see the church as she
is — a broken community in need of a God that can heal and save.”
use of the digital medium simply makes it possible to broaden the reach of the
Gospel message,” she said.
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