What You Wear And What It Means

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin

Perhaps you saw the national news story about a group of Catholic school students who were “kicked-out” of the Smithsonian Museum for wearing hats that said “Rosary Pro-Life.” The students explained to the security guards that the hats were being used to identify their large group and to keep it together. They were expelled, nonetheless. We applaud the students for the calm and respectful way they responded to this confrontation and also for their commitment to life – they had just attended the March for Life.
The incident points to the fact that in our popular culture we often wear something that reflects our belief or our loyalty. How often we proudly wear a t-shirt, a sweatshirt or a hat bearing the name and logo of our favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, for example.
Sometimes we wear things that have religious meaning. Christians wear a cross to identify themselves as followers of Christ. Catholics wear medals or pins to share a favorite devotion. When a priest wears a purple vestment for Mass rather than a white vestment, it means something.
What you wear means something. This truth will be on full display pretty soon when we celebrate Ash Wednesday. On that day, when you come from Mass, you’ll likely be wearing ashes on your forehead. They’ll be a very visible sign. But a sign of what?
First of all, the ashes identify us as Catholics, Christians, disciples of Christ about to enter a very serious time of the year, a time of repentance, conversion and renewal. We’re about to traverse a harsh, spiritual desert and that’s a formidable commitment. And the words that are said when the ashes are imposed also reveal the meaning of the smudge on our forehead.
One formula says, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” These words echo the preaching of Christ himself and get to the heart of the Christian message. They remind us that in every age, we are all called to repent of our sins, improve our lives and follow the teachings of Christ without reservation.
The other formula for the distribution of ashes says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These are the words of God to Adam in the garden after he had disobeyed and sinned. This reminder of our mortality should motivate us to take Lent seriously and to always live in such a way we’ll be prepared for the judgement when indeed we return to dust.
Something to think about: What you wear means something. It’s good to remember that when you receive your ashes.