[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following ran in The Forum newspaper on March 7, 2015.]
By Roxane B. Salonen
For me, it was like a reflex out of love.
When, at the end of Ash Wednesday services, our pastor encouraged us to take a selfie with our freshly pressed ashen crosses on our foreheads, I did so gladly.
The morning had begun on a difficult note, but finding myself unexpectedly standing next to my sweet soul sister Ann in the high-school auditorium where the service was taking place, a feeling of hope and calm overtook me.
So I was even more heartened to have her to include in the selfie shot; this dear woman who has been such a beautiful and integral part of my faith journey in recent years.
Almost immediately after my camera clicked, we were forced to part. On our own once again, we would have to rely on ourselves to push forward. And yet, I had tangible evidence here in this digital image that we wouldn’t be alone.
That’s what the moment meant to me – hope, love, solidarity. In fact I was so taken by the photo of us leaning into one another, wearing our black Lenten crosses, that I made it my Facebook profile picture.
For the next 40 days, this would be a reminder of the season of sacrifice into which we had just crossed, and, on a broader scale, our quiet solidarity with Christians around the world suffering at the hands of the violent.
The fact that Catholic bishops had encouraged the displaying of the “ashtag” on social media left me feeling even freer regarding our twosome selfie that morning of Feb. 18.
But soon, I would learn that in the eyes of some, I had done something wrong.
As some others had, I posted the image on Twitter. Not long afterward, I discovered an unintended offense when a friend pointed out an article in “Christianity Today” scrutinizing the ashtag selfie.
Apparently the act of taking and posting a selfie in this manner was being looked upon by some as disingenuous. “Jesus never said, ‘When you give, make sure to use a hashtag to let other people know,’” the article stated.
Oh dear. I could see immediately where this was heading.
A couple years ago, a friend had criticized the very idea of the Lenten ashes, citing the Scripture passage from Matthew 6:16, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.”
Ouch. But wait a minute, had I really been prideful in the wearing – and posting – of ashes?
There’s a danger with using one line of Scripture to prove a point. Elsewhere in the Bible, we find another meaning for the ashes. As one online article put it, “Very simply, sackcloth and ashes (in Biblical times) were used as an outward sign of one’s inward condition.”
Indeed, to many Christians, an ashen cross is, along with being a reminder of our mortality, simply an outward symbol of our inward yearning for change; a demonstration of the sincerity of our desire to repent. No more or less.
Pope Francis has encouraged Christians to use social media to bring Christ to the world. He’s also personally demonstrated, over and over again, the power of the visual.
In my heart, I feel great humility in terms of what the cross means to me, and what it requires. And on the matter of this controversy, it comes down to this for me – intention.
I respect my friends who would not choose to bring their ashes into the social realm. I would encourage them, then, not to go out in public with their ashes, either. Everywhere we bring them, whether on Twitter or into the grocery store, we are displaying our faith.
But personally, I love the ashes, precisely because they remind me of my littleness. Sharing them on social media doesn’t change that fact. It is much less a show for others and more a reminder to myself of to whom I belong.
And in the case of this year’s ashtag, it’s that reminder that I am not alone, and that others are with me, to encourage, and hopefully, not misunderstand or condemn.