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Ash Wednesday and Being a Cultural Outsider
Posted Feb 17, 2010 - 9:40:46

I'm typing this from Towers, so it's kind of appropriateMost people who read this blog are aware that I didn't grow up in a Christian household, and that the religious choices I made in my life have taken me in a very different direction. For the most part, I'm a fairly normal guy who is integrated into the culture at large (with merely an incredibly geeky slant). But as today is Ash Wednesday, I'm reminded as to how I've in many ways felt like an alien in my own homeland.

It all has to do with something that happened ten years ago. I know I've told this story before in this blog, the last time three years ago, but I don't think I've ever really explored my full point of view.

As many of you know, I first went to college for a year in 1999/2000 before taking three years off of school. One morning in the Spring 2000 semester I walked down the UWEC hill to my morning classes and was confronted with a sight that absolutely befuddled me: large amounts of people were walking around with something smudged on their foreheads. And it wasn't just one or two people; it was a fairly large group.

I kept walking to class, not saying anything, hoping that I'd see some sign explaining this... but nothing came. The worst part was no one was saying anything about it. Everyone was just walking around like this was normal. There were no quiet discussions in corners, no one was asking anyone about it -- a large percentage of people were just walking around with stuff on their foreheads.

Hours passed, and I found myself getting more and more confused. Finally, halfway through the day, I asked a friend of mine, "Why are people walking around with stuff on their forehead?"

He looked at me with a puzzled expression, and merely replied, "It's Ash Wednesday."

This was not a helpful response. In fact, this was the antithesis of a helpful response. After a few moments, I got him to explain why that was actually significant.

Now while I wasn't raised Christian, I wasn't raised in a vacuum either. I had heard of Ash Wednesday, I just had no idea that the name was so literal. I mean, I knew it was the day after Marti Gras, I knew it was the beginning of Lent, and I actually was fairly familiar with the theological idea behind the day. But I had no idea that they literally put stuff on their head.

It was then that I realized how alien my experiences were from my peers. That something that seemed so odd to me was not even something that they blinked at. To them, it was normal. For me, it was a strange religious ritual that I didn't understand.

It did teach me a lesson though. From then on, if someone has ever told me how strange they think some other culture or religion's custom is, I merely tell them my story about being a nineteen year old first exposed to Ash Wednesday. It helps give me perspective, and see how we take for granted our own inherent strangeness when judging others. I got to experience being a cultural outsider in my own homeland, and it's become something that I cherish.

...and I've totally stopped calling it "Crazy Stuff on Forehead Day."
- Traegorn

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Normally an Ash Wednesday would be a night from my understanding . And I'm Catholic so I know how big of deal this day is. I guess the reason it might been so weird is that normally people go to church at night to get the Ashes on their forehead. But that's also my experience there to.
Well, a lot of people go at night and in the afternoon because that's when they can make it (after work, school, etc).  It's why I never saw it in high school.

Many churches have Ash Wednesday services at different times of day though, hence why Vice President Biden was walking around with Ashes on his forehead today.
It's pretty much a Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican thing.  It's interesting that you hadn't encountered it and so many folks on campus had.  But then in a pagan meeting of sorts I went to recently a lady was discussing how her daughter, who had been homeschooled with mostly pagan and muslim kids, was totally unaware of what a cricifix was.  When she found out more about christianity she was offended to the point of being pissed off.  The lady I was speaking to said she had to have a series of serious talks with her daughter about how it's a valid belief and we shouldn't attack others for their beliefs.  It's funny how sometimes things get flipped around from the usual.
A lot of the Lutherans do it too actually.

Most of my experience with Christianity had been with people I knew from school.  The reason I never knew about the ashes on Ash Wednesday is that my friends from High School would go to church *after* school, and thus I'd miss the whole ritual portion.

It's funny - the people who look at me strangely for being a Wiccan are the same people who never think that their own faith might seem a little odd to an outsider.  :P
Heck I was raised christian and I had no clue till I started hanging at uwec...
I was raised pentecostal for the first 11 years or so of my life though... not the more traditional catholic
I was raised Lutheran, and I had never heard of the ash-on-the-face stuff until I got to Eau Claire. Still seems so bizarre to me.

I was also really super confused my freshman year of college when I heard people talking about giving things up for lent.
Kaje -- which Synod was your church?

Most Lutherans I knew growing up were Missouri Synod, and a lot (but not all) Missouri Synod churches do the ashes on Ash Wednesday these days... and some even do Lent.

...why do I, a non-Christian and a Wiccan to boot, know this much about Church politics and organization? :P
My church was ELCA and we totally did Ash Wednesday. 
I'm Lutheran and i've never heard of Lutheran's doing the ash on the forehead thing. Even then though, i dont buy into some of the organized bull my "sect" tries to sell us on, so even the former church i was at would have done that, i wouldnt be participating in it. Honestly some stuff loses its meaning when you look through the illusions.
I seem to remember many a comedians bearing jokes about just silly religions sound to someone outside their particular religion (Carlin for sure...).

I also believe that many people don't talk about it because A) it is normal to them and B) I think we're coming to a consensus that religion is a personal thing and doesn't need to be talked about.
Well, you may be a cultural outsider to the phenomenon of Ash Wednesday, but you still managed to inform the raised-Lutheran girl that it was this Wednesday. :D Good going.
I had about the same thing happen to me, actually.  Even though my dad was raised Catholic, we never attended church or discussed christian ideas much.  So when I went to a Catholic college, I encountered for the first time people "with stuff on their foreheads".  Of course, that evening we had a gallery opening we had to attend, and yeah I ended up going to it stoned.  So, I saw my art professor and asked her "What is that stuff on your head for?"  And was explained it was for Ash Wednesday.  But until then I had never encountered it before.  

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