With #ashtags on Ash Wednesday, faithful become a living sign of God's love

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron takes a “selfie” with Ash Wednesday Massgoers at St. Aloysius Church in downtown Detroit. The archdiocese is encouraging Catholics to post their pictures on social media using the hashtag “#ashtag” to promote an awareness of the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

Across the Archdiocese of Detroit, faithful mark the start of Lent with prayer, fasting and almsgiving — and a promise to love God back

DETROIT — On a cold, blustery, winter day in Detroit, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron invited the faithful to join in a 40-day journey to eternal spring.

That spring, he said, is Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and the journey begins with the faithful willingly accepting ashes that symbolically represent the Christian life in a natural and supernatural way, Archbishop Vigneron said.

“On a natural level, these ashes in some sense represent the ultimate futility of all human destiny. In the end, all seems to come to ashes,” Archbishop Vigneron said during his homily at St. Aloysius Parish in downtown Detroit, where he traditionally celebrates Ash Wednesday Mass.

“But on another level,” Archbishop Vigneron added, “the level of faith, of grace, the ashes remind us that even in what passes, in what seems to be failure, lies the potential for new and everlasting life. That our fate, our possessions and our very selves, when these are commended into the hands of God our Father, will be vindicated as Christ himself was. That as Jesus says, if we lose our lives, we will find them.”

Faithful receive ashes on Ash Wednesday at St. Aloysius Church in downtown Detroit.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40-day liturgical season of Lent, marked by an increased focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and abstaining from meat on Fridays. Many Catholics also take up a Lenten resolution in preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

“Normally for me, I pray before Lent to guide me on a penance or resolution, so there is never the same type of thing or the same direction,” said Brian Pickard, who stopped to receive ashes Wednesday morning at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth. Pickard said he plans to spend more time reading the Gospels during Lent, “prayerfully with my heart opened up.”

By accepting ashes, Archbishop Vigneron said Catholics are making a commitment to use the next 40 days to clear out the “un-Pascal” things in their lives to make room for Jesus.

“You believe in the power of the spirit of Jesus Christ, that you and I can be transformed and live forever with Jesus,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “So our accepting of these ashes means that we, today, are committing ourselves to 40 days ... of shedding of the sin and whatever is in us that is un-Paschal.”

Nora Mies, a second-grader from St. Michael the Archangel School in Livonia, still made it to Mass with her family despite the school being closed for a snow day. Nora said she is promising not to eat chocolate for 40 days to show how much she loves Jesus.

People pray after receiving ashes at St. Aloysius Church in downtown Detroit on Ash Wednesday.

“Today we have burnt palms on our foreheads because it’s Ash Wednesday,” Nora said. “Today is the beginning of Lent, so you can give up something to show how much you love God. This Lent I’m giving up chocolate, which is going to be hard, because I love it a lot. My teacher in school said that when we give something up, we show how much we love God and Jesus rising from the dead.”

The Archdiocese of Detroit is encouraging Catholics to share selfies with the hashtag #ashtag, tagging the archdiocese’s evangelization brand “Unleash the Gospel” — @UTGdetroit. Archbishop Vigneron called the #ashtags “cute,” but said they serve a specific, evangelizing, purpose.

“We say the Paschal ashes are a renewal of our faith, that the rising of Jesus from the dead is really a gift for everybody,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “There is nobody God has made in order to let that person be left as ashes. No one is made to subsist on the bitter fruit of sin. 

“We are called by God to share His vision on the meaning of life, to share the vision of the Paschal mystery with others,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “That’s what it means to ‘unleash the Gospel,’ to proclaim the good news that it doesn’t all end in ashes.”

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron blesses a young girl after imposing ashes during Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Aloysius Church in downtown Detroit.

By receiving ashes on her foreheads in the morning, Rhonda Gilbert, a parishioner at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Detroit, had the opportunity to talk about her faith with friends, family and even complete strangers.

“Lent is a chance to renew my commitment to God, but also to be an outward witness of Jesus Christ,” Gilbert said. “This morning, I was at a store, on my way to church, and I was looking for a Lent card. This lady asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ We talked, and I shared some of my faith. She came to Mass, even though she is not Catholic. I was really happy about that.”

Those are exactly the sort of moments that personify the purpose of Lent, when the faithful are encourages to prepare their hearts for the resurrection of Jesus at Easter, Archbishop Vigneron said. 

“The good news is that God offers life to everyone; God wants to be everyone’s Father, and He invites everyone to His Son, Jesus Christ,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “It takes courage to receive these ashes. It’s a simple gesture, but not an easy gesture, and the liturgy makes this clear. 

“They call this a campaign, a military campaign, but one of Christian service, because we take on that spiritual evil, that spirit of deceit and selfishness,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “It takes love to receive these ashes. It takes a love for God, to trust Him, to believe He is not going to leave your body to be ashes in the grave, but that He loves you, and you love Him.”