I went to a Catholic college, and since I'm not Catholic, I always felt a little left out during those times of year when Catholic pageantry would be at a fever pitch. I especially noticed the divide on Ash Wednesday, when I would be one of the only people without a smudgy forehead. It was like a one-day fad accessory, one that didn't didn't depend on how cool you were, just whether or not you'd been born into a fervently religious family. Mine was more the grape-juice-Communion Protestant variety, so today I got ashes on my forehead.
When I realized that today was the Wednesday, my first thought was to go get Ashed at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Apparently a lot of people had the same thought, because the line was wrapped around two blocks. I headed instead to St. Bart's on Park, an Episcopalian church with no line. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do when I got to the priest- the few people ahead of me were a mix of crossers, non-crossers, genuflectors and standers. When it was my turn, I just sort of stood there with my head bowed.
All the priest said was, "Remember that you are dust, and that dust you shall become" as he touched my forehead. Well that's true no matter what your religion is, so I reverently said "Amen" and went back up the aisle. (And before you get in my craw about "mocking" a religious practice by not taking to heart the symbolism behind the ritual, let me remind you that experiencing a different religion is a very important part of tolerance.)
Not five minutes later, I was standing on the platform waiting for the 6 when a guy my age approached me. "Excuse me," said impatiently. "What's this" he thumped his own forehead agitatedly, as if he were trying to supress something that might pop out of it, "that I see everyone walking around with?"
"It's Ash Wednesday," I replied.
"Ash Wednesday?" I would have given him more information if he'd asked for it, but he didn't. And it certainly wasn't "everyone" who was walking around with ashes. Once I left the 50s, I saw maybe one other person with ashes, but I didn't get a lot of strange looks, nor any more questions.