WASHINGTON — 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
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
Julianne Stanz, director of new evangelization for the Diocese of
Green Bay, similarly said people should pause and pray before posting ashes
selfies, but then go ahead and do it.
She noted that this goes against the notion that Catholics should
practice their faith quietly and in private.
"But 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
"We 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," she added.
Stanz 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
"Life 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 said 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
A number of Catholic groups, and even the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops, has urged people to post their Ash Wednesday photos
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.
"By 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 Mesa,
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."
"Making use of the digital medium simply makes it possible
to broaden the reach of the Gospel message," she said.