To #ashtag or not to #ashtag on social media

Editor’s note: This week we begin a new monthly column, A Space for Grace, written by Julianne Stanz, director of New Evangelization.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a solemn time of repentance and prayer that calls us to take a deeper step in our faith journey. Ashes are an ancient symbol of repentance reminding us of our mortality, our need for conversion and the day when we will stand before God and be judged.

A growing trend, especially amongst young adults, is the practice of posting Ash Wednesday “selfies” on social media and on the surface, a practice that seems to be at odds with the words of Christ: “take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.” (Mt 6:1-6).

Social media is full of articles and blogs encouraging young adults to post Ash Wednesday pictures with the hashtag #ashtag attached to the image but there are many who feel that the practice cheapens what is intended to be a time of self-examination and introspection. So what’s a Catholic to do? Let’s look at this in more detail.

Ash Wednesday is one of the busiest times of the year for parishes to reach engaging and re-engaging Catholics. Along with Christmas and Easter, it is a huge opportunity for evangelization, particularly those who are not practicing their faith regularly. Among Catholics who attend Mass at least once a month, those of the Millennial Generation (born 1982 or later) are the most likely to observe Lenten practices, according to CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Aposolate).

For millenials, the digital space is an extension of their world and so posting an image after receiving ashes seems natural. Life doesn’t stop after we receive ashes. We go about our daily lives — we wear our ashes at the grocery store, when picking up our children from school and at home gathered around the family table. Wearing ashes in the real and virtual world is about harmonizing who we are as people of faith. If we wear them in the “real” world, then we should also wear them in cyberspace. We are called, not just to “observe” Lent but to wholly enter into this season spiritually, emotionally and physically. Today, physical space includes the digital sphere.

Historically, U.S. Catholics were advised not to wear their “heart on their sleeves” to use a familiar expression, but to practice their faith quietly and in private. But make no mistake about it: faith, while personal, is not solely meant to be a private affair! Ash Wednesday is a day when we literally wear our faith on our forehead. We become, on this day, a visual extension of the love of Christ — a love which transcends time and distance, whether in the real world or the virtual world.

Last year, Julianne Stanz posted this photo of 6-week-old son Sean-Patrick, with the mark of ashes on his head, on Facebook. (Submitted photo)

I shared an image of my 6-week-old son Sean-Patrick on Facebook with the mark of the ashes on his head and had many comments on his picture. Those comments resulted in dialogue, faith sharing and questions about Ash Wednesday which would not have happened had I not shared my baby’s “selfie.”

In a world where information is instantly available, where documenting your life digitally is the norm rather than the exception and “selfies” reign supreme, how as Catholics might we use our online presence to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel as we are asked to do? My suggestion is “pause to pray then post away.”

Pause to pray. If you are going to post an Ash Wednesday selfie, examine your reasons for doing so. Before you post a picture of yourself on Facebook calling attention to a specific religious practice, spend some time in prayer. The prayer below may be helpful to you.

“Loving God,

You have created me in your image to be fearfully and wonderfully made. Help me to glorify you and to help others to come to a deeper love for your Son, Jesus Christ through my life, including my online presence. Thank you for every opportunity to share my faith and to grow in holiness. I ask this through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen”

Post away! After prayerful reflection share your moments on social media with joy and a sense of humility. Invite others to ask questions or to seek clarification online but most importantly, if you have the opportunity, sit down with people and be present to them face-to-face.

Our witness to the Gospel can be and should be a beacon of light as we go about our daily lives. Jesus reminds us, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house” (Mt 5:14-16).

May your ashtag inspire others and give glory to God!

Stanz is director of the diocesan Department of New Evangelization.