St. Brigid’s Day, Ash Wednesday, and Other Non-Essentials of the Christian Life

Posted January 25th, 2018 by CLMrf and filed in View From the Pew

By Robert Fontana

Ash_wed3A person could go all his or her life without observing Ash Wednesday and still be a deeply committed Christian.  Obviously the same is true for St. Brigid’s Day.  These celebrations have accompanying outward observances.  On Ash Wednesday we receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads.  On the eve of St. Brigid’s Day (February 1), we use a kerchief to literally swipe our homes clean of sin with the cloth and then tie the cloth to a tree, where “Spirit-wind” blows the sin away.  These rituals help us sanctify the days.  The activities are an outward sign of our belief as disciples of Jesus, yet they are not essential to discipleship.

What are the essentials of being a disciple of Jesus anyway?  Here are a few that come to mind:  belonging to a community of faith that follows Jesus; encountering Jesus in a personal way and making a conscious decision to follow him by living out the Beatitudes; opening one’s life to the Holy Spirit; belonging to a small group where one is personally loved and held accountable as a disciple; participation in public worship and community rites; maintaining a consistent prayer life that involves the praying/studying of Scripture; engaging one’s faith within daily life; caring for the sick, elderly, poor, and for children.

prayerWOW!  That’s a tall order and sounds like a lot of work.  These “essentials” are the “meat and potatoes” of following Jesus but, to continue the food analogy, without much seasoning or dessert.  I think that it’s the addition of the non-essentials that adds spice and fun to one’s faith, and shapes a specific identity as Catholic Christians.  For example, the liturgical year that divides up secular time into sacred seasons of Advent/Christmas, Lent, Easter/Pentecost, and Ordinary Times, is certainly not an essential feature of being a Christian.  Some deeply Christian denominations function perfectly fine without a “liturgical year.”  Yet we Catholics, joined by the Orthodox and mainline Protestants, find it extremely useful to organize the year around the major themes of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  In doing so, we think we are better able to fully participate in that paschal mystery year round.

We wait with patience during Advent as we pray for the coming Messiah; rejoice exceedingly as we celebrate that coming of the Messiah in the baby Jesus during Christmas/Epiphany; sit at the feet of Jesus during Ordinary Time to learn about the Kingdom of God; mourn with Jesus for our sins and the sins of the world as we walk with him to Calvary; and shout “Alleluia” as we experience his resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The liturgical year is a non-essential aspect of Christian discipleship that infuses our faith with the breadth of human emotions.  It adds immense depth to Christian discipleship and provides us with an anchor to hang on to our faith within the busyness of secular society.

The “Sign of the Cross” is another non-essential and arbitrary practice that Christians do that has helped shape an identity that is deeply Christian and Catholic.  In that one action, we remind ourselves of the saving work of Jesus through his death on the cross, and of our dependence on the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Can a person be a good Christian and never make the “sign of the cross”?  Most certainly.  Some Christians bow their heads when they begin a prayer.  Catholics (and Orthodox) make the “Sign of the Cross.”  It summons us to quiet ourselves, and be attentive to what God is doing in the moment, whether it be followed by the blessing of a meal or the committal of a beloved family member to the grave.

woman praying with rosary in handI think a relationship with Mary, the mother of Jesus, especially manifested through the practice of praying the rosary, is a non-essential practice of Christian discipleship.  One could go his or her entire life without ever praying to Mary, much less saying the rosary, and still be a deeply committed follower of Jesus.  St. Paul makes no mention of Jesus’ mother except in one obscure text in Galatians (4:4).  Certainly Paul never prayed to Mary and never thought that what she brought to the life of a disciple was important enough to write about.  Protestants, taking their cue from Paul, also do not pray to Mary (or the saints) and yet are still following Jesus as committed disciples.  Mary and the rosary are non-essentials to Christian discipleship.  But I believe a devotion to Mary, so deeply imbedded in Catholic culture, is a wonderful gift from God that deepens faith, hope, and love.

Of course, there are many other non-essentials such as observing the feast days of saints, praying to St. Anthony for lost items, blessing pets on the feast of St. Francis, wearing religious medals and scapulars, lighting candles as a prayer offering, fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, and “burying the Alleluia” on Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.  None of these practices are essential to Christian discipleship and, if done without the essentials, don’t have much meaning.  But when these rituals are done in conjunction with being an active follower of Jesus, they have the capacity to shape a Catholic Christian identity that gives a person deeper roots and brings joy and fun to the Christian life.

So add some spice to your faith life.  On St. Brigid’s Day (Feb. 1), wipe your home clean of sin and on Mardi Gras (Feb. 13)) bury the Alleluia (see rituals below).  Then on Ash Wednesday, the very next day, go to the nearest Catholic Church and get your ashes (even if you are not a Catholic).


BrigidSt. Brigid’s Day “Spring Cleaning” (February 1)
Prayer:  Saint Brigid, daughter of Ireland and lover of Jesus, draw us by your prayers into the living flame of God’s love.  Help us to clean our hearts and homes of all that is selfish and self-centered.  We forgive all who have hurt us and ask God to forgive our sins as well.

Pray for us, St. Brigid, that we will be attentive to the poor and spiritually abandoned, that we will practice the Beatitudes in good times and bad, and that the warmth of God’s love will animate all that we say and do.

Activity:  Each member of the home takes a kerchief or handkerchief in hand and walks through the house dusting the furniture and books, and lamps, etc. singing “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

When the house has been thoroughly dusted, all go outside and tie the kerchiefs on the branches of a tree. The myth is that, on the eve and day St. Brigid, in the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, travels through the land with her prayers to remove the dust and sin, and even ailments, from our lives.

Closing Prayer:  St. Brigid, come this day, to our home and hearts, come by the power of God, and be our guest.  And help us, dear Brigid, to wipe away the dust of “me, my, and mine” that we might love others with a selfless heart.  Amen.

Our Father…

Leave the kerchiefs and handkerchiefs on the tree for a week or until Ash Wednesday.



Ash_wed3All               Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Leader             For the 40 days of Lent the Church “buries the Alleluia” by refraining from singing this sacred word in our liturgy.  We do so to remember the Lord Jesus, God’s alleluia, the Lamb of God, who took the sins of the world with him to the grave so as to rob them of their power to destroy life.

What are the sins of the world today that destroy life?  Say them aloud as you write them on a sheet of paper bearing the word “Alleluia.”

[After all have done so the “Alleluia” is placed in the ground and buried with dirt in the same way that Jesus who died for the sins of the world was placed in a tomb following his death.]

All                   Gracious God and Father, your beloved Son Jesus suffered death to give us life.  Help us during this Lenten season to deny ourselves and serve others in imitation of Him who lives with you, and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.  Amen!

2 Responses to “St. Brigid’s Day, Ash Wednesday, and Other Non-Essentials of the Christian Life”

  1. Rosi Fontana says:

    Thank you for this very nice posting! Not being Irish, I had never heard of the lovely tradition of St. Brigid and the tradition of writing of the sins of the world on a sheet of paper and then burying the sheet. All very cathartic and also hopeful.

  2. Susan Vogt says:

    I’ve been reading your articles for quite awhile and always find them insightful and true. Finally thought it would be nice to let you know they are appreciated, including this one. (We met at a NACFLM conference awhile ago and both have a common Marianist heritage.) Keep up the good work.

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