Two days ago, I met my husband for a noon-hour Ash Wednesday service at the Episcopal church close to campus. I told him about an exchange I’d had after one of my morning classes with a student who was already wearing an ash cross on his forehead. We’ve been discussing in class how heavily invested 19th-century American Protestants were in setting themselves over against Catholics as a self-defining Other (with attendant difficulties for American Catholics). My student told me that he found himself thinking about that history when his pastor announced that he would be conducting an Ash Wednesday service: this is, evidently, a Low Church group, so there was some rumbling in the congregation about observing such a “Catholic” tradition.
After the service, my husband dropped me back off at campus. I headed quickly for my office so I could wash the cross off my forehead: I wasn’t comfortable wearing it on my professional turf. I wouldn’t have been thrilled about parading around in public with an ash cross anyway, but I was particularly uncomfortable walking around a state university that way in my role as professor. One church I used to get ashed in, back in grad school, had the custom of wiping the cross off during communion. Their argument was that it didn’t make much sense to go walking around “ashed” after having just listened to a Gospel reading about not performing your piety to be seen of others.
It occurred to me that Ash Wednesday is one of the few Western Christian practices that, as an American, I have to “squeeze” into my work day. The school calendar is set up in this country to give me Sundays off. Christmas is not just a national holiday but a federal one. When I was in North Carolina, my state university actually gave us Good Friday off (under the guise of “Spring Holiday”). Even certain saints’ days have been absorbed into the cultural calendar: St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, All Hallows Eve. Easter and Lent are a little trickier, culturally, because they’re based on a lunar rather than a solar calendar, so you don’t automatically know what date they’ll come up on this year. On the other hand, Mardi Gras and Easter are observed “commercially,” so they still leave a big cultural footprint, even if that footprint isn’t always planted on the same day of the calendar.
It’s different, of course, if you’re Eastern Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, in which case you regularly face the problem of having to keep track of where your lunar holidays fall in relation to America’s Western Christian solar calendar, most likely without the mnemonic benefit of having those holidays observed in the “seasonal” aisle of your supermarket. As my husband and I were walking pass the Hillel Center on the way to the car, I thought: The minor inconvenience I faced today of having to squeeze an Ash Wednesday service into my lunch hour is a little taste of what my Orthodox Jewish colleague goes through with all of his religious holidays.
As we passed the Hillel Center, my husband asked, “Have you ever been inside?” I haven’t–and I experienced a moment of unease that my husband was about to propose we pop in at that moment for a look. Walking into a synagogue while wearing an ash cross on my forehead would feel even more uncomfortable than wearing it on campus. However pluralistic the folks at Hillel might be, history casts a long, cold shadow.