Women wear the mark of ashes at St. Helen Church in Glendale, Arizona, in this 2016 file photo. Ash Wednesday -- March 1 this year in the Western church calendar -- marks the start of Lent, a season of sacrifice, prayer and charity. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- 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 recent years.
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 Journal.
Julianne Stanz, director of new evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, 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 forehead."
"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 natural."
"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 told Catholic News Service in a Feb. 22 email 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 their story.
A number of Catholic groups has urged people to post their Ash Wednesday photos online. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had been doing this until two years ago.
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, Arizona.
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.
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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.