My wife has a Palm Sunday habit of weaving her palm into the shape of a cross. I keep mine straight and tuck it behind the crucifix in our kitchen. I’ve been thinking since the beginning of Lent about why these observances have such a hold on us.
Ashes fall into the same category. Even in Washington, not a particularly Catholic city, everyone gets them on Ash Wednesday. And many leave them on all day, some with a discreet bindi-sized smudge, others with the full-on crusader look.
We’ve been going without palms and ashes for a couple of years due to COVID-19 — and it’s nice to have them back. Holy water fonts are full again too. I had begun to wonder whether COVID would mean the end of that devotion.
I shouldn’t have worried. I have seen online an Automatic Touchless Holy Water Dispenser with adjustable volume controls — one to five drops. (Prices are falling fast.)
I think I understand the theology of this better than I do the emotional pull. In popular usage, sacramentals are objects blessed by the church whose good effects are the result of the church’s prayer. Think of palms, ashes, holy water, rosaries, medals, candles and crucifixes.
We have a practice with our grandchildren that we call “rosaries for life.” Each child gets a starter rosary to be carried at all times in a pocket or purse. If it is ever lost or broken, we replace it free of charge.
It’s the church’s blessing that really matters. Whenever we move to a new home, we have our house blessed. One of our young friends got a new (well, used) car and had it blessed. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (“Sacrosanctum Concilium”) says that “there is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward (our) sanctification … and the praise of God.”
But what explains the gravitational pull that ashes, palms, holy water, rosaries and medals exert on us? Why do people turn out in bigger numbers on Ash Wednesday than they do on the feast of the Assumption, a holy day of obligation?
Part of the explanation has to be that we get stuff on some of those occasions. This is so obvious we might overlook it, but it’s surely part of the explanation. It’s not just stuff. A rosary is not a rabbit’s foot. It is blessed; it has the prayers of the church behind it; and it is something we use to pray ourselves. But it is a thing, and a reminder that we can use everything to praise God.
These things are also stuff we carry with us — ashes and holy water on our foreheads, rosaries in our pockets, medals around our necks. My wife has her palm in her purse. The point is not that they’re compact. It is that we are able to keep them as constant reminders to repent and believe in the Gospel.
The other thing that makes them sacramentals and not good luck charms is that they are part of a practice we share with other believers. We say the rosary with our grandchildren. Our ashes mark the church’s observance of Lent. The holy water font stands at the doorway to bless everyone who comes in.
I don’t want to get too mystical about it, but this is the virtue of faith in action. As Pope Francis says in “The Joy of the Gospel” (“Evangelii Gaudium”), it expresses our belief “more by way of symbols than by discursive reasoning.” Palms and ashes are acts of faith that lay more stress on “credere in Deum” than on “credere Deum.”
John Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @CatholicPres. Catholic University’s website is www.cua.edu.