Today is Ash Wednesday, a day that many Christians know as the only day they can be identified on sight. Unlike many religions, with their traditional clothing, headgear, etc., most Christian sects never have visible outward symbols of their faith for the average member.
But on Ash Wednesday, many Christians appear in public with smudges of black soot on their foreheads — incidentally, generally created from burned palm leaves used at the previous Palm Sunday — to symbolize the fact that all humans are dust, and eventually they shall return to dust.
This Ash Wednesday was particularly eventful from a news perspective, with Joe Biden, the first Catholic U.S. Vice-President, appearing with a prominent dark mark on his forehead. This led to an interesting debacle involving British TV-host Kay Burley, who was distracted by the smudge in her coverage of Biden and proceeded to speculate that he might have walked into a door. She corrected herself after a break, also in the process revealing that she actually is Catholic.
But many other news venues (and blogs as well) have commented on Biden’s mark, though they have uniformly identified it as a symbol of Catholicism, marking parallels with John F. Kennedy (the only Catholic President in history) and the apparent lack of photos of him with an Ash Wednesday smudge. The Boston Globe, perhaps channeling the era when only Kennedys and Irish and Italian Catholics mattered in local politics, has an online photo gallery devoted to Ash Wednesday celebrations around the globe — but only Catholic ones: “Take a look at how Catholics around the world celebrated Ash Wednesday.”
What I find somewhat remarkable in such coverage is the ignorance of Christian practices in general. Biden is not presenting himself as a Catholic, but merely as a Christian. Contrary to apparently what everyone seems to think in these news sources and blogs, other Christian denominations commonly celebrate Ash Wednesday, and many actually use ashes on Ash Wednesday as well.
To take the JFK issue seriously, many presidents since have been members of denominations who sometimes or often employ ashes. Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush were both Episcopalians, a denomination that commonly uses ashes, while Ronald Reagan (Presbyterian) and George W. Bush (Methodist) could potentially have received ashes in their churches. Even Barack Obama, affiliated with the United Church of Christ, may have had the opportunity to receive ashes in his own denomination, particularly in some liturgically-sensitive churches within his congregationalist sect.
While it is true that many denominations veered away from Catholic practices after the Reformation, including dropping many traditional liturgical elements, many mainstream Protestant sects have returned to older liturgies in the past century or two. Only many Baptist and Anabaptist sects tend to completely avoid Ash Wednesday ashes, and even there some individual churches may choose to celebrate it.
So why have so many commentators brought up Biden and JFK as if they were the only ones who might wear ashes? Despite the claim by some that Christianity has taken over U.S. politics, it’s clear that many of those commentators are ignorant of the traditions of most Christian sects. If such ignorant comments were made about Jewish or Muslim or Hindu traditions, the liberal press would jump on them.
Perhaps the only reason Catholics are often singled out is because they are more likely than most to attend an early morning mass, thereby wearing ashes on their forehead for an entire day. Moreover, in the Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is a major day of the liturgical year (though not actually a day of obligation), so many Catholics make an effort to attend mass.
On the other hand, most Protestant denominations have Ash Wednesday celebrations (when they do) in the evening, and these are generally sparsely attended (as are most Protestant services in the middle of weeks, except for Christmas Eve). Thus, only a small group of Protestants from a particular church are likely to receive ashes, and they will only wear them later in the evening.
Nevertheless, to me it demonstrates an intriguing lapse of perspective when the media runs a bunch of stories on Joe Biden’s ashes, JFK, and Catholicism. Are we really that ignorant of Christian practice in this (supposedly) “Christian” nation? Or are we really that bigoted toward Catholics that we feel the need to talk about them separately, even when they are taking part in a larger tradition?