In Pittsburgh, where I was born and lived for most of my life, Ash Wednesday was a powerful reminder of just how Catholic that city was. On the first day of Lent, downtown streets and office buildings teemed with people with dusky foreheads, a kind of religious census by smudge.
But ashes aren't just for Roman Catholics anymore. When I emerged from the Foggy Bottom Metro station Wednesday morning, I encountered a bishop in miter and flowing purple cope affixing ashes to passersby, a reminder to them that from dust they came and to dust they will return.
I knew it wasn’t a Roman Catholic rite because the bishop was a woman, the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde of the Washington Episcopal Diocese. In recent years various Episcopal dioceses have offered a service (in both senses of the world) known as “Ashes to Go.”
Since the 19th century, some Episcopalians -- so-called Anglo-Catholics -- have practiced rituals once exclusively associated with Roman Catholics. But in recent decades other Protestant denominations have embraced traditions that would have horrified their austere ancestors: not only ashes but candles on the altar and elaborate vestments for the clergy (the “rags of popery” of Reformation polemic).