I have several friends, good nonbelievers all, who love Christmas. They decorate, listen to Christmas music and buy generous gifts for friends and wrap them so as to resemble little works of art. They truly have the spirit of the day within them. But not only do they not believe in the divinity of Christ or the existence of God but they seem offended by such concepts. I myself don't have quite the same enthusiasm for Christmas. I feel I should. I reflexively think of it as my favorite holiday of the year, yet in actuality, it just seems to bring a lot of additional obligations on my time and attention. I have a friend whose family threw some of the best Christmas parties I've had the luck to attend but now she, after a bitter divorce, flat out says she hates Christmas.
I think of my festive faithless friends every year around this time because I love Ash Wednesday. I love getting dirt smeared on my forehead. Today it looked less like a cross than a running man. I love seeing who else has ashes on their forehead, the other marked. I enjoy talking about the logistics of getting ashes with other people. "St. Pat's is giving out ashes all day. You can be in and out like that, unless you go at lunchtime." I believe I gave this advice to four different people today, including someone at work I overheard mumbling "Ashes. Everyone's got ashes today. Gotta go get ashes..."
It's almost 10:00 at night and I still have the dark smear on my forehead. It almost seems a shame to wash it off. This evening I walked past a church and thought about going in and getting more ashes. I could see the priest's moment of confusion. "You already have ashes, my son." "I know. But I'd like some more." Perhaps you could spend the entire day going from church to church getting more and more holy soot smeared on your head. At what point would they stop? Would it before you looked like you were part of a minstrel show? Would you be taken aside and lectured on the deadly sin of gluttony? I imagine a priest would refuse those who went back for seconds on communion, but are ashes one to a customer?